NASA Administrator James Bridenstine wants to go back to the moon

NASA administrator James Bridenstine and astronaut Nicole Mann examine a spacecraft under construction.
NASA administrator James Bridenstine and astronaut Nicole Mann examine a spacecraft under construction.
Image: AP Photo/Gerald Herbert
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James Bridenstine was sworn in as NASA administrator on April 23, 2018. The former Republican congressman from Oklahoma has been a booster of private space enterprise, and now he is charged with executing a national space strategy to accelerate growth of that sector. Quartz spoke to Bridenstine in early December about the future of lunar exploration.

What is your vision of the lunar economy in the next ten years?

In ten years, we’re going to have, of course, landers on the moon, rovers on the moon, robots on the moon, and it’s going to be largely driven by science and discovery.

I think it’s important to note, from 1969 up until 2008, we thought the moon was bone dry, and then we made a massive discovery that there was tons of millions of water ice on the surface of the moon. The question is, what else is there that we don’t now about?

What have you learned about the agency’s relationship with commercial partners, after eight months on the job?

The big thing is they enable NASA to do more than it could do otherwise. I don’t know that’s something new that I learned. It is something that is even more apparent when you’re in the agency than when you’re out of the agency.

They give us flexibility, and multiple providers that compete on cost and innovation. It doesn’t tie us down to large, government-purchased, owned-and-operated systems for which the taxpayer is the only customer.

With the commercial contractors flying cargo or crew to the International Space Station, we can see a path to private use of these new technologies. What do you think the private sector use will be when it comes to lunar surface transport?

There have been private companies interested in going to the moon to prospect for precious metals, to prospect for the water ice to use as potential fuel on the surface of the moon. And I think there are a lot of countries all over the world that are interested in having activities on the surface of the moon; those countries could have their payloads delivered by these commercial providers.

What’s the link between the moon and Mars?

What’s unique about the moon is that its gravity well is one-sixth that of the gravity well of Earth, so things can land on and take off from the moon very easily compared to landing and taking off from the Earth or Mars.

I shouldn’t use the words “very easily.” It’s less complicated than it is for other planetary bodies. More than anything, the goal is to get to Mars with humans, [and] the moon is the best proving ground.

The value of the moon is that it does have life support, in the fact that it’s got water ice. We can prove that we can do in-situ resource utilization for water to drink, for air to breathe—we can figure out how to use it for propulsion.

It’s only a three day journey home. If something goes wrong, you can make it back to Earth. If something goes wrong on the way to Mars, it’s not likely that you can come home. You’re only able to make that journey every 26 months with the Earth-Mars alignment.

The Apollo program is widely seen today as being driven by geopolitical competition. Do you think about geopolitics in your current job?

It is absolutely a part of my job to think about geopolitics. NASA is a unique agency in the US government: We do science, we do discovery, we do exploration—we do it in a way that is separate from the national security apparatus of our country. We are able to have partners that are not the traditional partners of the US.

People are familiar with the struggles we have terrestrially with Russia. Those struggles go all the way back into the Cold War. At the height of the Cold War, the US and Soviet Union at the time, we partnered on a space station called the Apollo-Soyuz mission, and had them actually combine in Earth orbit as a way to better to understand how to live and work in space.

When channels of communication break down and we have these terrestrial disputes, we’re always able to cooperate and collaborate on space activities. That’s what makes NASA unique—it’s a very powerful tool for the US government and other governments as well. Roscosmos is a great tool for the Russian government to keep a channel of communication open with the US government.

Maybe a better analog for that Cold War relationship today is with China?

Right now, we are prohibited by law from cooperating with China. We do share data. When they do a science mission to the moon, we’re hopeful they will be able to share with us the data they receive, and when we do a mission to the moon, we can share data with them. Understanding and characterizing the moon and doing that kind of science is in the interest of all humanity. It’s not something any one country should try to retain for itself.

Do you spend much time, if any, thinking about the legal regime for the moon?

The Outer Space Treaty of 1967, that we are signatories to, makes it clear that the United States, or any private citizen for that matter, cannot own a piece of the moon. It also talks about utilizing the resources of the moon. When you think about the water ice and maybe if there is precious metal there, those are all resources that are available to humanity.

The way to think about it is, if you tie your hard work and your labor and you tie your investment to extracting those resources, then those resources do belong to you. You can own the resources of the moon. That was I think very apparent in the Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act, a bill I co-sponsored in the House of Representatives a couple of years ago.

When you fly in international airspace, we use a term called “due regard,” and when you are communicating on the radio and you tell someone you are flying due regard, you’re saying, ‘I’m going to keep an eye out for you, you keep an eye out for me, neither of us is going to get in anyone’s way.’ There’s a controlling authority. That due regard principle would apply to the surface of the moon.

In other words, if someone has landed in a certain spot, you don’t have a right to land on top of them or damage them or jam their communication systems.

Are you familiar with the thought experiment about the “Peaks of Eternal Light” that suggests placing a radio telescope on valuable moon real estate would effectively claim the land?

I think that would be correct, if someone lands in a certain spot, you can’t land on top of them. There are certain parts of the moon that are more valuable than other parts of the moon. The water ice is at the poles of the moon, in other words, craters, those pole traps also have elevated areas where you have 24 hour sunlight.

Sunlight is important because that’s where you get the electricity, the water and the poles and the cold traps are important, you’re going to need the electricity if you’re going to use the water.

If we end up in a position where we are having disputes over who owns what part of the moon according to the Outer Space Treaty, NASA and others have done something very good.

The Lunar Gateway has been criticized by some notable people in the space world, including Mike Griffin and Buzz Aldrin. How do you understand it?

For the first time, with reusable rockets that were developed because of NASA’s commercial re-supply and NASA’s commercial crew policies, we now have reusable rockets. Reusable rockets are dropping the cost of access to space and increasing the access to space.

So the question then becomes, can we create a reusable architecture between the earth and the moon? Reusable tugs from earth orbit all the way to lunar orbit? A reusable command module in orbit around the moon, that’s what Gateway is.

Gateway is not the International Space Station around the moon. It’s a reusable command module so that we can build resiliency into the architecture between the Earth and the moon. Sustainability is the key. If everything is reusable, then we have a sustainable architecture.

Here’s why the gateway is important: Go back to Apollo—we have six spots on the moon where we landed during the Apollo area, and we know a little about each of those six spots. We missed the water for 39 years. We don’t want to just go to the equatorial regions on the moon, we want to go to all of the moon.

It is open architecture—the way we do data, the way we do communications, the way we do avionics, the way we do docking, the way we do fueling—and available to the public on the internet.

Let’s pretend you just want to build a lander to get the surface of the moon. You can utilize the capabilities in that architecture to get to the surface of the moon. That’s what the Gateway provides…an on-ramp for commercial partners, for international partners. It enables the US to do more as well.

We can go to the moon and we can get there quickly. We can prove that we can get to the moon faster than anyone else. That race is over. We won. Now it’s time to build sustainable…

Why is “sustainable” a buzzword for you here?

The president put it in Space Policy Directive One. I work for the president of the United States. Space Policy Directive One says to build a sustainable architecture. He wants a return to the moon. The bottom line is, it’s good policy; what we don’t want to do is recreate Apollo and then not go back for 50 years.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.