Bridenstine Talks Moon by 2024, Slams Indian ASAT Test

Bridenstine Talks Moon by 2024, Slams Indian ASAT Test

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine held a Town Hall meeting with NASA employees today to talk about Vice President Mike Pence’s directive that NASA return astronauts to the Moon by 2024.  The forum was open to other questions, however, and one was about NASA’s reaction to India’s antisatellite (ASAT) test last week.  Bridenstine minced no words.

At a National Space Council meeting on March 26, Pence told NASA to get humans back on the Moon by 2024 “by any means  possible.”  If NASA cannot do it, he warned, it would be the agency that had to change, not the goal.

NASA’s existing notional plan is landing astronauts on the lunar surface by 2028. Delays in the Space Launch System (SLS) program and the need to obtain the necessary funding and/or agreements with commercial and international partners, makes even that a challenging date.

Jim Bridenstine, NASA Administrator. Photo Credit: (NASA/Bill Ingalls)

Bridenstine is nothing if not enthusiastic about Pence’s charge, however, which he sees as an opportunity.  He provided few specifics on how NASA will pull it off, but basically put forward NASA’s current architecture augmented by more money to speed it up.

The notional plan calls for creating a system of vehicles, most of which are reusable to ensure the program is sustainable and not a dead-end like Apollo.

Astronauts would get to the Moon in an Orion capsule launched by SLS and dock at a small space station, the Gateway, in lunar orbit.  There they would board a transfer vehicle to get to a lower orbit around the Moon.  A descent vehicle would take them down to the surface and they would leave the surface in the ascent vehicle.  After returning to the Gateway, they would depart back to Earth in Orion.  Bridenstine describes it as a reusable version of how the Apollo astronauts went to the Moon.

SLS and Orion have been in development for many years.  The Gateway is funded for the first time in FY2019.  The other elements remain conceptual.  Lunar spacesuits also will be needed.  The limited supply of spacesuits on the International Space Station (ISS) created a public relations problem for NASA this week because a planned spacewalk by two women astronauts was scrubbed because it would have taken too long to configure two medium-size spacesuits to fit them.  A woman at the Town Hall meeting asked if NASA would ensure the lunar spacesuits are correctly sized for women.  Bridenstine quoted Pence as saying the “next man and the first woman” to set foot on the Moon will be Americans, so yes, the agency will indeed have spacesuits for both genders.

Bridenstine plans to stick with that overall architecture and work on getting more money to speed it along.  He also said that SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy might be able to substitute for SLS for some of the launches.  Frustration at repeated schedule delays and cost overruns on the Boeing-built SLS are part of what is fueling the Trump Administration’s determination to move fast and get to the Moon sooner rather than later even if it means using commercial rockets instead.

Bipartisan buy-in from Congress is a sine qua non to get the additional funding he conceded, but provided no specifics on the amount.  The Vice President said “by any means necessary. …  We’re going to need additional means. I don’t think anybody can take this level of commitment seriously” otherwise.

He insisted the Trump Administration is committed to the goal, but its FY2020 budget request for NASA does not reflect that.  It proposes to cut NASA by half a billion dollars compared to its current funding ($21.019 billion instead of $21.500 billion) and proposes deferring upgrades to SLS needed to land humans on the Moon.  No lunar spacesuits are included.  The request also would terminate two Earth science programs, the next space telescope, and NASA’s STEM education programs, all of which were proposed before and rejected by Congress, so it has an uphill battle already.

Bridenstine will testify to the House Science, Space, and Technology  Committee on that budget request tomorrow.  Committee chairwoman Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) said last week that she looks forward to hearing how NASA will accomplish Pence’s goal “and at what cost.”

Trump is the third President to set a goal of returning American astronauts to the Moon.  The first two, President George H.W. Bush in 1989 and President George H. Bush in 2004, did not get the requisite funding and the efforts died.  Veterans of those eras are skeptical this time will be any different, but Bridenstine promised again today that it will not be another round of “Lucy and the football.”

With all the mystery about how NASA can get astronauts on the Moon in 5 years, it was surprising that some of the questions were on completely different topics.  One asked about NASA’s reaction to India’s ASAT test and the space debris it created.

Air Force Lt. Gen. David Thompson confirmed the ASAT test during testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee last Thursday, the same day the test took place.  He said the Air Force was tracking 290 pieces of debris and expected to find more as the cloud expanded and additional data became available.

Bridenstine said 400 pieces of debris now have been identified, 24 of which are in orbits that go above the apogee of the ISS’s orbit. He left no doubt that he views the intentional creation of space debris as antithetical to human spaceflight.

“That is a terrible, terrible thing, to create an event that sends debris in an apogee that goes above the International Space Station.  That kind of  activity is not compatible with the future of human spaceflight…. We are charged with commercializing low Earth orbit. We are charged with enabling more activities in space … for the purpose of  benefiting the human condition… All of those are placed at risk when these kind of events happen. … It is unacceptable and NASA needs to be very clear about what its impact to us is.” — Jim Bridenstine

He said the risk of an ISS collision with space debris increased 44 percent after the test.  The debris is in a low orbit and will dissipate, and the ISS can maneuver out of the way if necessary, but that is not the point.

“We are the only agency in the federal government that has human lives at stake here. It is not acceptable for us to allow people to create orbital debris fields that put at risk our people. …  Know this, while the risk went up 44 percent, our astronauts are still safe, the International Space Station is still safe.  If we need  to maneuver it we will. The probability of that I think is low.   … But we have to be clear also that these activities are not sustainable or  compatible with human spaceflight.” — Jim Bridenstine


User Comments has the right (but not the obligation) to monitor the comments and to remove any materials it deems inappropriate.  We do not post comments that include links to other websites since we have no control over that content nor can we verify the security of such links.