Bridenstine Upbeat on NASA’s Future as Pew Survey Underscores Public Support

Bridenstine Upbeat on NASA’s Future as Pew Survey Underscores Public Support

Six weeks into his new job, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine fielded questions from reporters today about a variety of NASA programs and the agency’s future.  By coincidence, the media roundtable took place the same day the Pew Research Center released a new survey of American opinions about NASA indicating the public is more interested in studying climate science than sending astronauts to the Moon or Mars, but continues to hold NASA in high esteem.

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

Much of the discussion focused on human spaceflight.  Bridenstine said he is confident that commercial crew systems will be ready before NASA exhausts its access to Russian Soyuz spacecraft, but acknowledged NASA is assessing options like extending the duration of International Space Station (ISS) missions just in case.  He also conceded that “it doesn’t look like” Boeing or SpaceX will be able to achieve the 1-in-270 Loss of Crew (LOC) probability that was set at the beginning of the program.  It is not clear “what that [statistic] will be at the end.”  Judgments and decisions will have to be made to avoid undue risks, but they have not been made yet.  “We want the safest program we can possibly have.”

Regarding the future of the ISS and commercialization of low Earth orbit (LEO), Bridenstine said the key tenet is to not have any gap in access to LEO facilities like the ongoing gap in human access to LEO after the end of the space shuttle program.  No gap at all.  Even as a Congressman, companies were talking to him about the potential of commercializing ISS, he said.  The Trump Administration’s proposal to end government support in 2025 has galvanized the conversation about options and opportunities.  Importantly, he stressed, “nothing will be done outside of the consent and advice of our international partners.”

Bridenstine was asked about the status of the human exploration roadmap NASA was supposed to submit to Congress last December.  “We’re putting it together,” he replied, offering no details, but asserting that Congress is “going to like it.  It will be great.”

Some advocates, notably Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-CO), insist that humans should land on Mars in 2033.  Bridenstine avoided making any promises.  He considers the Moon as an essential proving ground for deep space human exploration and was not willing to commit to when humans would be back on the lunar surface, never mind on Mars.  The key is to ensure that when astronauts get to Mars, they are not just “marshmallows” unable to conduct scientific research because of the deleterious effects of the journey.

On space science, he stressed his firm commitment to continuing the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) even if it breaches its $8 billion cost cap.  “It’s going to be worth it.”

Northrop Grumman is the JWST prime contractor and NASA Science Mission Directorate officials said in March that the company committed “avoidable errors” during integration and testing that have delayed the launch from October 2018 to at least May 2020.  NASA is currently evaluating the results of an Independent Review Board to determine a new, firm launch date and cost estimate. Today Bridenstine agreed that Northrop Grumman’s work “hasn’t been good — they know that, NASA knows that, but we’re going to get it worked out.”

Asked when an announcement will be made about a Deputy Administrator, he said a number of people are under consideration and someone will be nominated “in the not too distant future.”  He declined to provide any specifics such as whether it will be someone with a technical or a policy background.

The Pew survey released today demonstrated strong public support for NASA and for the United States remaining a global leader in space.  However, the poll also showed that majorities believe monitoring climate (63 percent) or tracking asteroids (62 percent) should be top NASA priorities rather than sending astronauts to Mars (18 percent) or the Moon (13 percent).

Asked about the preference for climate research over a human return to the Moon, Bridenstine referred to NASA’s long history of studying the Earth and following Decadal Surveys from the National Academies. “I think NASA can lead when it comes to studying the Earth and studying the climate, that’s what we have been doing and that’s what we intend to keep doing.  I do believe that it’s important for NASA to continue its other missions as well.  I support an all-of-the-above strategy.”

Bridenstine’s confirmation as NASA Administrator was delayed in part because of concerns that he did not agree that the climate is changing and humans are primarily responsible.  Democratic Senators worried that he might prevent NASA scientists from publishing research results at odds with that belief.  At his confirmation hearing in November he made clear that he does accept that the climate is changing and would not restrain NASA scientists.  He went further at a May 23 Senate Appropriations subcommittee hearing during a colloquy with Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawii) agreeing that his position has evolved and he accepts the scientific consensus that the climate is changing primarily due to human activity.

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