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Season 3, Episode 1: Meet NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine

Season 3Episode 1Apr 11, 2019

NASA’s got big plans to send people to the Moon, and then on to Mars. What are we going to do at the Moon?

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April 11, 2019 – NASA’s got big plans to send people to the Moon, and then on to Mars. What are we going to do at the Moon? NASA’s Chief Scientist Jim Green chats with NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine.

Administrator Bridenstine speaks at facility with spacecraft in background

Jim Green: NASA’s got big plans to send people to the Moon, and then on to Mars. What are we going to do at the Moon? And how will that lead to footprints on the Red Planet? Let’s ask the person in charge: the NASA Administrator.

Hi, I’m Jim Green, Chief Scientist at NASA, and this is Gravity Assist.

This season is all about the Moon.

With me today is the NASA Administrator, Jim Bridenstine. Jim became the Administrator in April of last year. He comes to NASA at a really exciting time with all kinds of launches and landings and new themes for us to explore. Jim has been in Congress, where he focused heavily on Space Policy. He’s been the Director of the Tulsa, Oklahoma Air and Space Museum and Planetarium, and he was a Navy Aviator in both active duty U.S. Navy and U.S. Navy Reserve.

And then after that, he’s been in the Oklahoma Air National Guard. So, aviation has been a lot of what you been doing. In 2015 Space News named Jim, is one of the five game changers in the world of space and I can guarantee you that’s exactly right. Welcome to Gravity Assist.

Jim Bridenstine: Well, thank you Dr. Green, it’s good to be here.

Jim Green: Well, you know, were you always interested in space or what was that thing that sparked your attention? What we call a Gravity Assist.

Jim Bridenstine: So, I would say I was always interested in aviation. From the day I was in kindergarten, in fact, when I got my wings of gold as a Navy pilot, that particular day, my mom actually brought me a picture that I drew in kindergarten. And we were supposed to draw what it was — what did you want to be when you grew up? And I had a picture of myself standing next to an airplane with a hat on. And I guess that hat indicated, that’s what I thought pilots wore, a hat. So, I’ve always been interested in aviation. I always wanted to be a pilot.

Of course, growing up, that was just kind of, you know, my entire bedroom was covered with pictures of airplanes, old airplanes, new airplanes, fighter jets etc. But eventually, as you mentioned, when I grew up, I became a pilot in the Military, and eventually got elected to Congress. And in Congress I found myself on a number of critically important committees. The Strategic Forces Sub-Committee of the Armed Services Committee is responsible for all of the United States of America’s Military space based capabilities.

I was also on the Space Sub-Committee of the Science Committee. Of course, the Space Sub-Committee oversees NASA. And I was Chairman of the Environment Sub-Committee of the Science Committee. And the Environment Sub-Committee of course, oversees NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration of which, 40% of their budget is space related activity.

Jim Green: Wow.

Jim Bridenstine: So, for five and a half years in Congress, I was very focused on space activities in our Nation, and some of the challenges that we had. And I actually drafted a bill called the American Space Renaissance Act, which was, in my view, a you know, a comprehensive look at the American Space Enterprise. What do we need to do to make America the most competitive place on the planet for space industry and make you know, space safe for all operators? And so, you know, I’ve always been you know, interested in aviation. And of course, when I came to Congress, I really got involved in space issues.

Jim Green: So, why do you think NASA has such a great support structure from Congress?

Jim Bridenstine: Oh, it is amazing. And–.

Jim Green: –It is.

Jim Bridenstine: It’s unlike anything in the U.S. Government, which is you’ve got Republicans and Democrats alike–.

Jim Green: –Yep–.

Jim Bridenstine: –That both love NASA. It’s one of those agencies, it has broad bipartisan support. It’s interesting you know, there are these little pockets where you could say, you know, well Republican are for the moon and Democrats are for Mars. You know, they try to break out those things. But it all falls apart really quickly because everybody understands how important NASA is to science, to discovery, to exploration. And everybody supports it.

And, you know, we have an era right now where the President and the Vice President are increasing their budget requests for NASA and at the same time, even before I can get to the Hill to advocate for those increased budget requests, you know, the Congress, in a bipartisan way, has even plussed up from those budget requests.

Jim Green: Yeah, I know. It’s a wonderful time.

Jim Bridenstine: So, right now I think we’re in a great spot. It makes my job as the NASA Administrator much easier than it otherwise would be. But, there’s a lot of support on the Hill, a lot of support from the Executive Branch, and of course, as you mentioned it’s a very exciting time to be at the head of NASA.

Jim Green: Well, you’re the first former Congressman to serve as a NASA Administrator. So, what do you think the advantage is or even the disadvantages are?

Jim Bridenstine: Well, the — I think the disadvantages are people have assumptions about you based on what political party you’re in.

Jim Green: Right.

Jim Bridenstine: And my — what I’ve been working on really hard is making people understand that when it comes to space, those assumptions don’t, they’re not relevant here. And space is as I said, it’s very bipartisan. It has a lot of support on both sides of the Hill in Washington DC. So, that could be a disadvantage. But what I found overwhelmingly, as an advantage, is the fact that, you know, I have to go and defend budget requests. And I have to make sure that when we have a cost over-run that Congress can be supportive of making sure that we get the job done in the end.

And I have wonderful relationships on the Hill on both sides of the aisle. People who have been overwhelmingly supportive of this effort. And when you look back in history, one of the best NASA Administrators in history is James Webb.

Jim Green: Yeah.

Jim Bridenstine: And he came from the Hill. He was an appropriations staffer on the Hill and then he went to the Bureau of budget. In fact, I think he went to the Treasury first, and then he became the Director of the Bureau of the Budget. And then the president that he worked for, you know, termed out. And when that term was over, he went back to Oklahoma, which happens to be my home state.

Jim Green: Um-hmm.

Jim Bridenstine: He went back to Oklahoma and got involved in the energy industry. And then his party came back into power in the White House, and he came back to Washington DC as the NASA Administrator at a time when people really didn’t know or understand what NASA even was. We had not even flown into space, let alone, gone to the moon at that point.

Jim Green: Only the dreams.

Jim Bridenstine: It was only, yeah. And the question was, who do you put in charge of this agency that is really about imagination and dreaming?

Jim Green: Um-hmm.

Jim Bridenstine: And they put a gentleman in charge that came from the political environment. And of course, he worked for a President who said that we were going to go to the moon in ten years by the end of the decade.

Jim Green: Yeah.

Jim Bridenstine: And he said that in 1962. And sure enough, by the end of the decade, we were on the surface of the moon. Now, James Webb was an impressive character in American history for a whole host of reasons. But without his leadership, remember, the Apollo 1 Fire–.

Jim Green: –Yeah–.

Jim Bridenstine: –That ultimately killed three of our proudest astronauts.

Jim Green: Yeah, a seminal event in NASA’s history.

Jim Bridenstine: And Congress was gnashing teeth and there was question whether or not we were going to continue the Apollo Program at all. But because of James Webb and his leadership and his relationships on the Hill, he was able to compel a solution that ultimately got us to the surface of the moon and fulfill President Kennedy’s dream which was to land a man on the surface of the moon and bring him home safely. And they — we did that.

Jim Green: Yeah, we did. You know my experience in NASA has been that the highs are just unbelievable. Our launches, our landings, our fly-bys and all the stuff that we do and discover. But sometimes when we have some lows, they’re really hard to take but we have to move on.

Jim Bridenstine: It is, and here’s the thing that’s important to remember, we take risks at NASA. And the question is why, because what we’re learning, the science, the discovery ultimately our understanding of ourselves is important. Rock climbers take risks, hang gliders take risks. What we’re doing is we’re taking risks for an entirely different purpose, which is to improve science, improve discovery.

And if you go back to the Apollo era, it was to establish a political and economic system that was superior to that of our opponent. And because of the risks that people take, and in fact, some of the lows that we went through, we did establish the United States of America as the one place on the planet that is capable of preserving more freedom than any other place on the planet.

Jim Green: And indeed, all that comes back to improving life here on earth.

Jim Bridenstine: Absolutely. When you think about the way we communicate, navigate, produce food and energy, the way we do disaster relief, provide national security, predict weather, understand the climate, even do banking with the GPS signal, every single one of us, listening to this broadcast right now, all of us, are dependent on space in ways that we don’t even think about on a day to day basis. And yet, we are.

Jim Green: Um-hmm.

Jim Bridenstine: And it’s important for us to remember, all of those capabilities were a result of a trail blazed by NASA.

Jim Green: You know over the short several months that you’ve been an Administrator of NASA, what’s really been the most surprising things that have come up for you?

Jim Bridenstine: Well, I’ll tell you, there is no shortage of opinions or ideas on what NASA ought to be doing. And I don’t know that that’s a surprise, but it’s a bit relentless and in a good way. Again, there is no shortage of brilliant people with great ideas. The challenge is our budget is, as great as it is and is becoming better all the time, we do have limitations. We have to make tough decisions. And so, you know, getting through those tough decisions is sometimes not as easy as you might think.

Jim Green: Well, you know, this is why when we from a science prospective interact with the National Academy of Science, we get some really important input from them where the community of scientists get together, and they sort of prioritize the top things that we ought to be working on. Things that will just be transformational in our understanding of the physics and the environments that we’re going into.

Jim Bridenstine: Absolutely, and you know, and thank you for bringing that up, because it enables me as the NASA Administrator to say, look, we’re not looking at this from a political prospective. We’re looking at it from a scientific prospective. And the National Academies provide us that — the guidance that ultimately if we follow, we can prevent NASA from becoming a political agency, which we do not want it to become.

Jim Green: Right. Well, what do you hope NASA missions will discover in the future? What are the things that you’re waiting to have happen?

Jim Bridenstine: There’s so much. But, I think the biggest thing that most people are anxiously anticipating is, are we going to be able to find life? I mean, that’s the biggest thing. And of course, you, Dr. Green as the Chief Scientist, and I’ve heard you talk about it a lot, the — what we’re finding on Mars right now with complex, organic compounds.

And when you think about the methane cycles being perfectly aligned with the seasons of Mars, and for the first time really discovering liquid water, one and a half kilometers below the surface of Mars. These discoveries have all happened since I’ve been at NASA.

Jim Green: Yeah, I know.

Jim Bridenstine: And so, the question is, we know, of course, from my discussions with you, we know that there used to be you know a magnetosphere around Mars. And there used to be two thirds covered with water. And it used to have a thick atmosphere. And some time, you know, a billion plus years ago, all of that changed. The question is this. We know that it was at one point habitable, doesn’t mean that it was inhabited. The question is, are we going to discover life there now? And the answer is, we don’t know, but the probability based on what we’re understanding, the probability keeps going up.

And it’s also true, you know, you ask about, what am I looking forward to discovering? You think about the moons around Saturn and Jupiter. You think about entire water worlds. Worlds moons composed of nothing but water with an ice shell, which means that there could potent — and that ice shell represents you know, basically blockage of radiation in those harsh radiation environments.

Jim Green: A protective environment for life to perhaps grow and live.

Jim Bridenstine: Absolutely. So, there’s the one thing that drives me is ultimately, are we going to be able to discover life that’s not on Earth. And if we do, it really changes everything.

Jim Green: Yeah, we’re on the hunt for it, and it’s getting better and better every day. I think as we continue to make methodical measurements not only in our Solar System, but you know, in the exoplanet area which is another, just exciting realm of possibilities. It really pushes us to go further and further.

Jim Bridenstine: And you think about the exo — what was it, 15 years ago we didn’t know — we hadn’t discovered a single exoplanet, is that right? 15 years ago?

Jim Green: It was about ’92 when they first found one.

Jim Bridenstine: Okay.

Jim Green: Yeah, so–.

Jim Bridenstine:So think about, we went from one exoplanet to–

Jim Green: –probably 4,000 planets with verifiable orbits around stars.

Jim Bridenstine: –which, there’s — what we’re able to do today with the technology that we have and even more technology that we’re developing the idea that life is unique to planet Earth, that idea I think is going to diminish quickly.

Jim Green: Yeah, well as you say, right now, we know enough about exoplanets to be able to predict that there’s probably more planets in our galaxy than there are stars.

Jim Bridenstine: That’s incredible isn’t it?

Jim Green: Yeah, it really is when you think about it. Now, is there any particular mission you’re excited about?

Jim Bridenstine: Oh, there’s a good number of them. You know, the President’s Space Policy Directive One takes us back to the Moon. And I want to be clear, we’re going forward to the moon, not back to the moon we’re going forward to the moon. Now, why is that important? Going back, you know, to the Apollo era, 1969 when we first landed humans on the moon, all the way up until 2008, 2009, we thought the Moon was bone dry. In 2008, the Indians made a discovery, 2009 NASA confirmed the discovery. We now know that there’s hundreds of billions of tons of water ice on the surface of the moon.

That discovery alone, should have changed our trajectory back to the moon. What else do we not know? So, the President Space Policy Directive says we’re going to go to the Moon, and we’re going to do it in a way that sustainable. This is not going to be Apollo again. We’re not going to go back with flags and footprints, come home and never go back. This time, we’re going to go to stay.

What does that mean? That means, every piece of the architecture has to be reusable. People are familiar with Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos building reusable rockets. That drops the cost of access to space. And it increases the access to space. So, we — so that’s what we need. We need reusable rockets, but that’s just the beginning. We need tugs between low earth orbit and the moon, lunar orbit to be reusable as well.

And we are building, as you’re aware. We’re starting the process of a gateway, which is an essence, a space station around the moon, smaller than the International Space Station, but a space station none the less, capable of human habitation that will be around the moon for a very long period of time. And we need reusable landers that can go back and forth from the gateway to the surface of the moon.

So, what does all of this mean? This means that we’re going to have more access to more parts of the moon than ever before in human history. And we’re not going to miss things like we did from 1969 all the way up until 2009. Forty years of not understanding, that there is in fact, a water cycle on the surface of the moon, which is just you know, it’s crazy to even think about that we could have missed that.

So, all of that being the case, we need reusability, but we also have opportunities because we have commercial and international partners, that didn’t exist during the Apollo era. So, that gives us more opportunities to do more things on the way to, around and at the surface of the moon than ever before.

And ultimately, we want everything to be replicable at Mars. So, we go to the moon for a whole host of scientific reasons, but we also go to the moon as a proving ground for technologies and life support and in Situ resource utilization, using the resources of the moon to live. We go to the moon to prove that we can ultimately go the Mars, go to Mars to live.

Jim Green: Well you know, I’m really personally excited about the gateway in the fact that its orbit allows it for communication with instruments and rovers and landers, that could be on that far side of the moon. And we’ve never been there, and yet it has got some fascinating regions that we would love to explore.

Jim Bridenstine: Yeah, and you know I hear you talk about instruments. The idea that we could do astrophysics from the far side of the moon where it’s exceptionally quiet–.

Jim Green: –Yeah–.

Jim Bridenstine: –Is that in itself could be game changing.

Jim Green: Yeah, indeed, it opens up a frequency range that we just can’t get to here on earth because of all the radio interference that goes on.

Jim Bridenstine: Absolutely.

Jim Green: Well, you know, if you were to visit any planet in our Solar System, which one would it be, and why?

Jim Bridenstine: Oh, my goodness, I get to visit any planet in our Solar System. Oh, I mean, I’d have to say Mars because we’re learning so much right now about Mars. And I really believe that if we’re going to find life in our Solar System, that’s probably the place that we’re going to find it easiest. Doesn’t mean that it’s not on Enceladus or Europa, but certainly, I think Mars is the one place in our Solar System that’s the most like Earth, and that historically would have been the most habitable.

Jim Green: What do you hope the James Webb Telescope will discover about planets outside our Solar System?

Jim Bridenstine: Another amazing capability that we’re developing. So, James Webb enable us to see all the way back to the very beginning of the universe. Cosmic Dawn, the very first light. Now, of course, James Webb is going to be in the infrared spectrum, and so what it’s detecting is very, very faint, very trace heat signatures. And in order to do so, it has to be extremely cold, so it’s going to be a million miles away from Earth. And of course, it’s you know, going to have a sun shield that makes it very, very cold on the opposite side of the sun shield, plus a cryocooler that brings it almost down to absolute zero. In fact, I think they say it’s six kelvin, which is incredibly cold.

Jim Green: Pretty close.

Jim Bridenstine: Yeah, so this is going to enable us to see the very first light in the universe. And it’s in the IR spectrum. And of course, it’s because as the universe expands, those wave lengths have expanded with the universe. And so, we’re going to have to detect it in the IR. But, either way, we’re going to be able to see what the universe looked like at the very beginning. And it’s going to help us understand and model ultimately how the universe got to be the way it is right now. And it’s going to help us to see all the way out to, as far as we can see, to the edge of the universe even the edge of the universe right now, which, will really fundamentally change the way we understand physics, quite frankly.

Jim Green: Yeah, it’ll make really transformational observations, not only in astro-physics, but also does some exoplanet work, and it track objects from Mars on outward. So, it can even make important discoveries within the Solar System. It is an incredibly versatile telescope.

Jim Bridenstine: And so, when you say exoplanets, we are going to be able to use James Webb to look at nearby stars and planets that orbit those nearby stars.

Jim Green: That’s right.

Jim Bridenstine: That’s amazing.

Jim Green: It is. Well, you know, it’s not — I don’t think it’s well known that the first A in NASA is really aeronautics.

Jim Bridenstine: Absolutely.

Jim Green: And many of our astronauts, of course, are pilots. And you had mentioned that you were always wanting to be a pilot. What kind of planes did you fly?

Jim Bridenstine: So, I started off — when I graduated from college, I joined the United States Navy, and I started off flying T-34’s which is a single engine turbo prop, and then T-44’s which is a two engine turbo prop. And then I went to the T-2 Buckeye, which of course, is a, it’s not of course, but it’s a jet. It was the first plane that I ever landed on an aircraft carrier.

Jim Green: Wow.

Jim Bridenstine: And then I went to the E-2 Hawkeye which is a large command and control aircraft. It has a big radar dish on top of it, so we can see a long ways away, and ultimately do command and control of a theater of battle from an airborne platform.

Jim Green: Wow.

Jim Bridenstine: So, really gave me a kind of a big picture view of, well, warfare, which is not always fun but sometimes necessary. But I did that, and I flew the E-2 Hawkeye in Iraq and Afghanistan back in 2002, 2003. And then I transitioned to the F-18 Hornet where I flew at the Naval Strike and the Air Warfare Center, which is the parent command to Top Gun. And my job there was to study how the enemies of the United States fly and then fly those profiles to get shot down by the Top Gun Instructor.

So, if I was getting shot down then it was a good day for America because they were getting good training. But, I did ‘Red Air’. I flew as an aggressor for three years, from 2004 to 2007.

Jim Green: Well, what is something about piloting jets that the public would be surprised to hear about?

Jim Bridenstine: Probably that it’s not, it’s really not that much different than piloting a you know, a propeller air craft. You know, the — your moving a lot faster, but you’re going to be in air space that’s a lot bigger. The technology, of course, imbedded in a fighter aircraft is pretty amazing, to the point where you know, the pilot, him or herself is one input into maybe twelve different flight control computers. And ultimately, the machine is going to give you whatever it wants to give you and you can tell it what you want it to do, but it’s going to give something entirely different in some cases.

I remember flying really slow at one point when I was early in my F-18 flying days, and I was just flying straight and level, and I remember looking out at my wing and watching my ailerons you know, go up and down. The plane is flying even though I’m not flying it. I thought I was straight and level and, in fact, I was, but the plane was making tiny little corrections the entire time I was just you know, steady there.

Jim Green: Wow.

Jim Bridenstine: Yep.

Jim Green: Well, you know, as I said, many of our astronauts have been pilots in the past. Did you at any time while you were flying think you’d become an astronaut?

Jim Bridenstine: You know, I never really did. You know, as a Navy pilot, I did nine years on active duty. And, of course, to go beyond that, I, you know, I would have needed more time in the military. I did nine years on active duty and then I went to Cornell University to get an MBA. So, my goal was ultimately, to maybe get a job on Wall Street or do something like that. No, that never materialized because, you know, as life happens, my wife’s father passed away. Her mother got multiple sclerosis. We had this big you know, burden to move back to Tulsa, Oklahoma, which we did.

And instead of working on Wall Street, I was working at a non-profit air and space museum. And flying counter drug operations as a Navy Reservist at that point. So, life takes its twist and turns.

Jim Green: It does.

Jim Bridenstine: And you never know what direction It’s going to take you.

Jim Bridenstine: It could all work out.

Jim Green: Yeah, you know, I’ve been fascinated by the aeronautics research that NASA does, and sometimes when you sit out — sit in the plane and look out the window, the very end of the wings are these little pieces of metal that jet up. And turns out, that that was original research done by NASA, that it actually saves fuel in the aerodynamics.

Jim Bridenstine: You know, you — I have, I’ve been watching the progression of these air liners.

Jim Bridenstine: And you see you know the — how big the engines are getting on the air liners. And I remember thinking, you know, and when I flew E-2 Hawkeye’s if you started going too fast, and you started going downhill at the same time that you’ve got you know, your propeller spinning, and if you hit a certain speed, the tips of your propeller would actually go supersonic. And it would create a terrible noise and a lot of vibration in the cock pit.

And I remember thinking about these big fans you know, these high bypass engines that are now on the air liners, they’re just massive. Well, that really, those — that bypass air acts, those fans act a lot like a propeller does in a propeller air craft. And I remember thinking, how do they get, how do they fly that fast, and those bypass fans not hit the speed of sound? How does that happen?

Well, you know, just since I’ve been on the job for the last ten weeks, well I found out that there’s actually a reduction gear box that was developed by NASA. So those high bypass fans actually spin at a lesser rate than the turban themselves. And I know that I’m getting a little wonkey here, but the reality is, that technology developed by NASA has increased efficiency and fuel efficiency and reduced noise in ways that you know, the American aeronautics industry would not have made those investments because it was too high risk.

But the United States Government steps in with NASA, we make those investments, and now the entire world has benefiting from it, from a fuel efficiency stand point, from an environmental stand point and of course from a noise reduction stand point. So, again NASA, what NASA does, it blazes a trail for generations to come.

Jim Green: Absolutely. You know, do you see the role of NASA changing over the next decade?

Jim Bridenstine: Well, that’s a good question. I think so. You know, we’re making so many new discoveries every day. And the technology is changing so fast that in some cases NASA isn’t going to necessarily have to be at the help of certain things. And that gives us an opportunity to you know, you think about what we’re doing right now with commercial crew and commercial resupply where NASA is buying the service to get back and forth to the International Space Station, rather than purchasing, owning and operating our own rockets, we’re just buying a service.

Well, when it comes to data, whether we’re studying the earth or studying, the sky, you know, all of that could be data that we buy as well from commercial providers at a lesser cost. And then NASA is one customer of many customers driving down the cost and increasing the innovation as the suppliers compete on innovation. So, there’s I think — NASA will not look ten years from now the way it looks today just like it doesn’t look today like it did ten years ago.

Jim Green: And how can you envision a NASA and where we will be in space 60 years from now?

Jim Bridenstine: Oh, goodness. I think what you’d have to say is we can’t envision it. Technology is changing so fast. And what we’re learning and discovering is happening so fast, that 60 years from now, it would be impossible for me to take a guess at where we’re going to be. But, I would hope that 60 years from now, we will have humans living and working on Mars. I would hope that 60 years from now, we would have a permanent presence on the moon. And I think that with, as I said earlier, reusable rockets, the miniaturization of electronics, the advanced advancements in technology. I think all of that will be eminently possible.

Jim Green: Yeah, wow, our future in space is bright, and we just touched on a couple topics today. Well, I really want to thank you Jim for joining me, it’s just been tremendous having you here. You’ve given us all, I think, a Gravity Assist.

Jim Bridenstine: Well thank you Jim I appreciate you very much.

Jim Green: So, until next time this is Jim Green and that was your Gravity Assist.

Jim Bridenstine: All right, well, thank you for having me.

Producers:JoAnna Wendel and Elizabeth Landau

Audio Engineer:Emanuel Cooper