03/08/2019

NASA: To The Moon (And Definitely Beyond)

27:28 minutes

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine during a NASA town hall event at NASA Headquarters in Washington. Photo Credit: (NASA/Bill Ingalls)

On December 14, 1972, as Apollo 17 astronaut Eugene Cernan prepared to board the lunar module, he gave one last dispatch from the lunar surface.

“And as I take man’s last steps from the surface, back home, for some time to come, but we believe not too long into the future. I’d like to just list what I believe history will record, that America’s challenge of today has forged man’s destiny of tomorrow. And, as we leave the Moon at TaurusLittrow, we leave as we came and, God willing, as we shall return, with peace and hope for all mankind.”

And yet, 47 years later, humankind has not set another foot on the lunar surface. But now, NASA’s ready to return, with the Moon to Mars program. NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine joins Ira in this segment to talk about the agency’s ambitions beyond Planet Earth, the role of commercial space companies in getting us there, and why he thinks plant science is “critical” to NASA.


Interview Highlights
These comments have been edited for clarity and length. You can find the full segment transcript below. 

On creating a sustainable presence on the moon.
Jim Bridenstine: [As] everybody saw just a few days ago, we launched SpaceX Falcon, a Falcon 9 rocket with a Crew Dragon to the International Space Station, where we have had people living and working for now 18 years in a row in space. So I would say we are in really good shape as a country. This president has put us in an even better position with his budget requests and bipartisan support in the Congress. We’re making great progress.

When we go to the Moon though, the difference is, the president has said we’re going to be sustainable. In other words, we’re not going to leave flags and footprints, and then not go back for another 50 years. This time when we go, we’re actually going to stay, which means we need commercial partners. We need international partners. And we’re getting great support from our international partners right now. And we also need reusability. We need rockets to be reusable, and of course, every piece of the architecture between here and the Moon to be reusable.

On whether a woman will go to the Moon for the first time. 
Jim Bridenstine: The answer is absolutely. In fact, it’s likely to be a woman, the first next person on the Moon. It’s also true that the first person on Mars is likely to be a woman. So these are great days. We have the first all-female spacewalk happening this month at the end of March, which is of course, National Women’s Month. So NASA is committed to making sure that we have a broad and diverse set of talent. And we’re looking forward to the first woman on the Moon. 

On Bridenstine’s evolving climate change views.
Jim Bridenstine: I believe 100% carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas. Humans have put more of it into the atmosphere than ever before, which means we have absolutely contributed to the climate change that we are currently experiencing. That is absolutely true. And I don’t know anybody who argues that that is not the case.

What NASA does and what NASA will continue to do is study the Earth in every part of the electromagnetic spectrum in order to provide data and information so that policymakers can make good decisions. As a member of Congress, there were certain things happening that, in my estimation, were not in the best interest of our country. But I don’t remember ever saying that climate change is not happening… Some people attribute that to me based on certain positions that I took on certain issues.

But the reality is, climate change is happening. It has been always happening. We are contributing to it. And the question is, what is NASA going to do about it?

On why “plant science is critical for NASA.”
Jim Bridenstine: We put those satellites into space to study the Earth, to study the atmosphere, to study the ionosphere, to study the upper atmosphere. We didn’t put them in the Earth to help agriculture. But what we’re finding is that in this process, we’re able to take this data and provide it….

This is a good story about California. So what we’re doing is we’re reducing water usage for a lot of these farmers by 25% while they’re increasing their crop yields and saving the nitrates in the soil. So nitrates, of course, they erode away when you overwater. Well, if we can prevent farmers from overwatering, we save the water. We save it for the ecosystems and for the people to drink, and for hydropower, and all the other things we need water for. But at the same time, we’re also preserving the nitrates. So we get better plant growth, and those nitrates don’t end up in the drinking water.

And here’s the thing. We launched these satellites for a purpose that was not this. And here we are, able to increase crop yields, reduce water use, preserve nitrates.

On why we’re still focusing on the Space Launch System as NASA shifts focus to the Moon to Mars program.
Jim Bridenstine: SLS has a bigger payload capacity than any rocket that’s ever been built in history. Of course, it’s taller than the Statue of Liberty, with a bigger fairing size for more volume.

Here’s the thing. We need a permanent presence at and on the Moon. We need reusability. The Gateway, which [will be] a space station in orbit around the Moon– think of a very small space station– is, in essence, a reusable command and service module. We need a [very] heavy lift rocket to put that in place for reusability to drive down the cost and increase the access to the surface of the Moon.

It is true that there could come a day when other companies can have that super heavy lift capability. It’s not there right now. We’re getting really close with SLS. And of course, Orion is very close as well. We need to keep developing these capabilities.

On the possibility of a NASA space force.
Jim Bridenstine: NASA does not do national security or defense. We never have. We never will. That’s not in our agenda….

Our very way of life has been elevated by space capabilities to the point now where we are dependent on space in a way that most Americans don’t understand. The way we communicate– we talk about Dish Network, DIRECTV, XM radio, internet broadband from space. Think about my home state of Oklahoma. A lot of rural folks there, if there is no internet broadband from space, there is no internet for them. When you think about not just how we communicate, how we navigate with GPS, how we produce food…. The way we do disaster relief, and of course, national security…. The way we do weather prediction, the way we do climate science, the way we understand the changing climate, all of these things are dependent on space…. Every banking transaction in this country is dependent on a timing signal from GPS…. So if there’s no timing signal from GPS, guess what? There’s no banking. In other words, there’s no milk in your grocery store.

That is an existential threat to the United States of America to the point where China has declared space the American Achilles heel. And they’re moving out to deny us the use of space if and when they want to. They’ve also recognized that that timing signal is necessary for the regulation of flows of electricity on the power grid and the regulation of flows of data on the terrestrial wireless networks. We are absolutely dependent on space for our very way of life. And it absolutely must be protected.

So I’m a big advocate for it, but I will also tell you, that’s not what NASA does. And I’m committed to making sure NASA stays separate from the Department of Defense.



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Segment Guests

Jim Bridenstine

Jim Bridenstine is the administrator of NASA, based in Washington, D.C..

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. On December 14, 1972, Apollo 17 astronaut Eugene Cernan stood on the surface of the Moon, about to take his last steps back into the lunar module. 

EUGENE CERNAN: And as I take man’s last steps from the surface, back home for some time to come– but we believe not too long in the future– I’d like to just let what I believe history will record, that America’s challenge of today has forged man’s destiny of tomorrow. And if we leave the Moon at Taurus-Littrow, we leave as we came. And God willing, as we shall return. 

IRA FLATOW: Gene Cernan, Apollo 17, the last Apollo mission to the Moon. He says, we believe not too long in the future, we will return. Well, it’s been 47 years. 47 years later, a human has yet to set another foot on the lunar surface. But now NASA’s ready to return with the Moon from Mars program, just one of the many projects on NASA’s drawing boards. 

Jim Bridenstine is the head of NASA. He joins us from NASA headquarters in Washington. Welcome to Science Friday. 

JIM BRIDENSTINE: Thank you. It’s great to be here. 

IRA FLATOW: Wasn’t that a great feeling to hear Gene Cernan again talk from the Moon? 

JIM BRIDENSTINE: Absolutely. What a wonderful man. I got to know him personally when I was a member of the House of Representatives. And I can tell you his vision, up until the day of his death, was just as adamant that we go back to the Moon. And we go to stay. And that’s what the president has us doing now. 

IRA FLATOW: Let’s talk about your own career. You mentioned that you were a member of the House. You spent a career in politics and military. You’re not a space scientist or an astronaut. So what led you to interest in space? 

JIM BRIDENSTINE: So I’m a Navy pilot by trade and had the opportunity to fly E-2 Hawkeyes off of aircraft carriers, and then transition to the F-18 Hornet. I’ve always had an aviation kind of desire. From my earliest age, when I was five years old, they asked us to draw a picture of what we wanted to do when we grew up. I drew a picture of an airplane and said I wanted to be a pilot. 

So it’s always been who I am as a person. I’ve always loved aviation. And the first A in NASA is aeronautics. A lot of people forget about that. But we’re also the space agency. 

And so I’ve had a great opportunity. I ran for Congress, had the opportunity to win. And when I was in Congress, I was on the Strategic Forces Subcommittee, which oversees the national security space-based capabilities of our country. And then I was on the science committee, which on that committee, I was on the Subcommittee on Space, which oversees NASA. And I was on the environment subcommittee, which oversees NOAA. And about half of NOAA’s budget– or 40% of Noah’s budget is space-related activities. 

So I’ve spent five and 1/2 years in the House of Representatives working on space issues. And I got to the point where I drafted a very comprehensive space reform bill. We called it the American Space Renaissance Act. And that started me on this path. And eventually I ended up being nominated by the president to serve as his administrator. And it’s been an amazing, amazing opportunity. 

And I will tell you, the folks here at NASA are phenomenal. And this agency is so bipartisan. And members of the House, members of the Senate on both sides of the aisle support what we do. And we’ve had very good success in a bipartisan way, achieving budgets that are going to put us on a path to go back to the Moon. And this time, we’re going to stay. 

IRA FLATOW: Let me quote from your American Space Renaissance Act. I’m quoting, “You want the United States to be among those who first arrive at a destination in space and open it for subsequent use and development by others.” So as China and others prepare to send humans to the Moon, is it imperative to you that Americans be the first to return there? 

JIM BRIDENSTINE: Well, I think it’s important. There’s a difference between what I think China is doing and what we are doing. China, of course, is interested in going to the surface of the Moon. And so are we. 

Our interest is going to the Moon to stay. We’ve already been to the Moon. We landed on the Moon in 1969. We had six missions, 12 people that walked on its surface. And so this is not a race. And if people want to claim that it’s a race, which I hear quite frequently, I’m OK with that. 

But the reality is, when they were landing on the far side of the Moon, we were landing on the far side of Mars. And by the way, we were doing it for the eighth time in human history. And we’re the only country that has ever done it. Weeks later, we were flying by Ultima Thule in the Kuiper belt, which is past Pluto. We’re talking about four billion miles from Earth and taking beautiful images of Ultima Thule. And then of course, we entered orbit around an asteroid in deep space called Bennu. 

And as everybody saw just a few days ago, we launched SpaceX Falcon, a Falcon 9 rocket with a Crew Dragon to the International Space Station, where we have had people living and working for now 18 years in a row in space. So I would say we are in really good shape as a country. This president has put us in an even better position with his budget requests and bipartisan support in the Congress. We’re making great progress. 

When we go to the Moon though, the difference is, the president has said we’re going to be sustainable. In other words, we’re not going to leave flags and footprints, and then not go back for another 50 years. This time when we go, we’re actually going to stay, which means we need commercial partners. We need international partners. And we’re getting great support from our international partners right now. And we also need reusability. We need rockets to be reusable, and of course, every piece of the architecture between here and the Moon to be reusable. 

IRA FLATOW: Let’s talk about the president’s support for the space efforts. The 2019 NASA budget gave NASA– it was very generous. It gave NASA more than it asked for. But President Trump wanted to cut the WFIRST telescope, the Europa Lander, five missions that study the Earth, and NASA’s education programs. Congress gave you the money instead and more, basically saying to the president, no, we disagree with your policy. 

JIM BRIDENSTINE: So we can take each one of those. So here’s the thing. Congress was very generous to us. They have given us a budget that funds, I think, pretty much everything that you have suggested. Here’s the thing. I come in as the NASA administrator. And the president’s budget request takes NASA up a billion dollars. 

IRA FLATOW: Billion and a half. 

JIM BRIDENSTINE: Well, no. His budget request was actually about a billion. 

IRA FLATOW: Oh, they gave you more. 

JIM BRIDENSTINE: Yeah, it was bigger than any budget in my adult lifetime. And everybody was like, wow, he’s serious. He wants to go back to the Moon. And I was thrilled. I’m like, OK, I’m going to go to NASA, and I’m going to advocate for a much bigger budget. 

By the time I got here, Congress had already passed, in a bipartisan way, a $1.7 billion increase. So it’s interesting that I thought I was coming here to increase the budget. Well, in fact, the administration and Congress are stepping over each other trying to increase our budget. 

We have not had this kind of support, really, since the Apollo era, but it’s good. In each one of those cases, those programs that you mentioned– and I have to go back and listen to all of them that you mentioned. But they are currently, I believe, all fully funded. 

IRA FLATOW: Yes, they are. 

JIM BRIDENSTINE: And so we’re in good shape. We are moving out on each one of those projects. We are following the law. But it is also true that we can’t do everything that we’d love to do. And sometimes we have to make tough decisions. But as you’re aware, those projects are all fully funded. 

IRA FLATOW: Let’s go to the phones. 844-724-8255. Let’s go to Derek in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Imagine that. 

DEREK: Former constituent here and a long-time listener. Thanks. Mr. Bridenstine, when you were running for Congress here in Tulsa, you were pretty adamant against man-made climate change. And you’ve recently changed your mind on that. I was wondering what you came across, what you read, who you talked to to change your mind. And if you return to Oklahoma politics later in life, are you going to hold that view? Do you think that Republicans in Tulsa, for instance, can hold a view on man-made climate change like you do now and still run for Congress in Oklahoma? 

IRA FLATOW: Thanks for the call. 

JIM BRIDENSTINE: Yeah, that’s a great question. And I think it’s important to note– there’s a lot that goes into that question. And to unpack it, I’ll just say this. I believe 100% carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas. Humans have put more of it into the atmosphere than ever before, which means we have absolutely contributed to the climate change that we are currently experiencing. That is absolutely true. And I don’t know anybody who argues that that is not the case. 

What NASA does and what NASA will continue to do is study the Earth in every part of the electromagnetic spectrum in order to provide data and information so that policymakers can make good decisions. As a member of Congress, there were certain things happening that, in my estimation, were not in the best interest of our country. But I don’t remember ever saying that climate change is not happening. I don’t remember ever saying that. Some people attribute that to me based on certain positions that I took on certain issues. 

But the reality is, climate change is happening. It has been always happening. We are contributing to it. And the question is, what is NASA going to do about it? What NASA does is we study the Earth. And we make all that data and all that information available to the public so that other people can make their determinations and assessments on what the policies ought to be in order to make sure that our Earth is healthy. 

IRA FLATOW: You said in front of a group of farmers in California last month that, quote, “Plant science is critical for NASA.” What did you mean by that? 

JIM BRIDENSTINE: No, this is an area– again, going back to the Earth science budget of NASA. Again, we’re sensing the Earth in every part of the electromagnetic spectrum. And we’re doing it in both with active sensors and passive sensors. In some cases, we’re shooting beams, whether it’s radio or infrared or even laser, at the Earth. And we’re getting that reflected energy back. And we’re making determinations. 

Here’s what we’re learning. We put those satellites into space to study the Earth, to study the atmosphere, to study the ionosphere, to study the upper atmosphere. We didn’t put them in the Earth to help agriculture. But what we’re finding is that in this process, we’re able to take this data and provide it. Right now we have a cooperative agreement with the Cooperative Extension of the University of California. And we’re sharing our data with the University of California in a way where they can apply it to farmers’ land in California. 

This is a good story about California. So what we’re doing is we’re reducing water usage for a lot of these farmers by 25% while they’re increasing their crop yields and saving the nitrates in the soil. So nitrates, of course, they erode away when you overwater. Well, if we can prevent farmers from overwatering, we save the water. We save it for the ecosystems and for the people to drink, and for hydropower, and all the other things we need water for. But at the same time, we’re also preserving the nitrates. So we get better plant growth, and those nitrates don’t end up in the drinking water. 

And here’s the thing. We launched these satellites for a purpose that was not this. And here we are, able to increase crop yields, reduce water use, preserve nitrates. In 2017, just a couple years ago, we applied some of this capability to a situation that we saw, as NASA, developing in Uganda. And when we applied NASA data to a drought that was about to occur in Uganda, we can see plant stress from space weeks ahead of when we can see it from Earth with the human eye. 

And so we applied this technology. We saw a disaster waiting to happen. And we actually mitigated the disaster ahead of time, saving the taxpayer tens of millions of dollars by actually investing $2.7 million in front of the crisis instead of doing disaster relief after the crisis. So here’s an applied capability that has benefited the American taxpayer. It has saved lives in Uganda. And it’s a win-win for all of the above. 

And so we need to expand these kind of capabilities, not because NASA– this is not in our mission set. But what we can do is we can prove the technology. We can prove the capability. And then we can use it for others. Or commercial industry could take it over and sell the data for farmers that are looking to improve their crop yields. There’s a lot of different ways we can benefit from this. 

IRA FLATOW: I’m Ira Flatow. This is Science Friday from WNYC Studios. Talking with Jim Bridenstine, who’s the head of NASA, talking about unintended consequences. And when they turn out to be good things, then we call it serendipity. 

Let’s go to the phones. Let’s go to Orlando, David in Orlando. Hi. Welcome to Science Friday, right there in the Space Coast. 

DAVID: Yes. Hi. Thank you for taking my call. First off, I want to congratulate NASA and SpaceX on such a successful, historic program this past week. I was able to see the launch from right here in downtown Orlando. And it was awesome. And it’s such a historic moment for the residents here. 

I’m a younger gentleman by the age of 33 years old. And so I wasn’t around the Apollo missions, but it gets me so excited, as I assure you does for the youth in this country. My question is– 

JIM BRIDENSTINE: Well, thank you for all that. Thank you. 

IRA FLATOW: Go ahead. 

DAVID: 100%. My question is, Mr. Bridenstine, with the success that SpaceX and NASA have done through a partnership– NASA’s provided such critical resources through their expertise and just being a great partner to SpaceX. And like Elon said, SpaceX wouldn’t be around and be this successful without NASA. So with that, as we move our focus to the Moon and from the Moon to Mars, why is NASA still focusing on the SLS program for that launch capability, when clearly we have companies like Boeing coming on line and companies like SpaceX are able to provide these resources to get out of low Earth orbit and into the Moon? 

IRA FLATOW: OK. We’re coming up on a break. Let me get an answer before we go. 

JIM BRIDENSTINE: Yeah, I’ll be really quick. Great question, by the way. SLS has a bigger payload capacity than any rocket that’s ever been built in history. Of course, it’s taller than the Statue of Liberty, with a bigger fairing size for more volume. 

Here’s the thing. We need a permanent presence at and on the Moon. We need reusability. The Gateway, which is a space station in orbit around the Moon– think of a very small space station– is, in essence, a reusable command and service module. We need a very heavy lift rocket, a super heavy lift rocket to put that in place for reusability to drive down the cost and increase the access to the surface of the Moon. 

It is true that there could come a day when other companies can have that super heavy lift capability. It’s not there right now. We’re getting really close with SLS. And of course, Orion is very close as well. We need to keep developing these capabilities. 

But here’s the thing. If there are opportunities to partner with private industry just like we did with SpaceX and Boeing for commercial crew, in the future you’re likely to see that happen. Right now those opportunities aren’t presented to us in a way that we’re ready to move out on it. But certainly that is on the horizon, if and when that day comes. 

IRA FLATOW: All right. We’re going to take a break and take lots more calls. 844-724-8255. Lot of people calling. We have a lot of people tweeting. And here’s a tweet from Shannon, who says, “Since it’s International Women’s Day, please ask your guests if returning to the Moon will include a woman on the Moon, something that’s never happened.” 30 seconds for an answer. 

JIM BRIDENSTINE: The answer is absolutely. In fact, it’s likely to be a woman, the first next person on the Moon. It’s also true that the first person on Mars is likely to be a woman. So these are great days. We have the first all-female spacewalk happening this month at the end of March, which is of course, National Women’s Month. So NASA is committed to making sure that we have a broad and diverse set of talent. And we’re looking forward to the first woman on the Moon. 

IRA FLATOW: There you have it, news from Jim Bridenstine. He’ll be with us, going to stay after the break. We’ll be back. 844-724-8255. You can also tweet us @scifri. Stay with us. We’ll be right back on the other side of the break. 

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. We’re talking this hour with NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine. Our number, you can call in. Lines are pretty busy. 844-724-8255. 

We were talking earlier about climate change and Florida, where all that infrastructure is from NASA, the launch facilities in Florida, if you’ve been there. I’m sure you have. I know you have. Many of us have. 

JIM BRIDENSTINE: Yes. 

IRA FLATOW: Just about all at sea level. 

JIM BRIDENSTINE: Yeah. 

IRA FLATOW: With the rising ocean levels predicted for this century, what long-term plans does NASA have to make sure that the launch facilities and everything else stays dry? 

JIM BRIDENSTINE: No, that’s a critical, important question. A couple of things to note here. So the answer is yes, the sea level is rising. And I heard somebody earlier suggest that as a member of Congress, I might not have been– I don’t know, that I didn’t believe in climate change or something. 

To be clear, I was on the Armed Services Committee as a member of Congress. And at one point– this was long before I was either nominated to be the NASA administrator or even being thought of as being the NASA administrator– there was an amendment to have the Department of Defense study how climate change is affecting national security. And what’s interesting is, of course, all the Democrats were for the amendment, having the Department of Defense do this study. And all the Republicans were against the Department of Defense doing this study. 

And I made a determination, as a Republican, that this was a critically important study that the Department of Defense ought to do. Why? Because I’m a Navy pilot. I used to be stationed on the coasts of the United States, including Point Mugu, California and Norfolk, Virginia, among other places. And yes, it is true that a rising sea level, which is happening, does affect the military bases at sea level, just as it affects our launch complex. 

So right now out at Kennedy, we are in fact building berms. We’re building dams, if you will, out of sand and other materials that are necessary to prevent– when there is a storm surge from a hurricane or something else so that our facilities will be 100% protected. So that has become necessary. We’ve had problems in the past. We’re trying to make sure we don’t have those problems in the future. 

This is true though. And I hope the gentleman from Tulsa who called is listening. When I was on the Armed Services Committee, the argument I made is that as a Navy pilot, here’s what we know. We know that the Arctic ice is not where it used to be. It has receded significantly. In fact, even in the wintertime, it doesn’t completely cover the Arctic at this point. 

What does that mean? That means we have to defend territory we didn’t used to have to defend. And our competitors in the world are able to operate in territory they never used to be able to operate. So the Arctic ice is melting. The sea level is rising. That is happening. And everybody can argue about what’s causing it, but the reality is, nobody can argue that it’s not happening because it is very apparent. 

IRA FLATOW: I think the argument is how much you believe that humans are involved in causing the rise of CO2 levels. 

JIM BRIDENSTINE: Absolutely. And the answer is, we are very involved. In fact, I mean, I don’t know what the right number is, but certainly carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas. It’s now at about 420 parts per billion, which puts us in a position where the sea level– we have warmed the Earth, and the sea level is rising. 

It is also true that there are feedbacks in the climate of the Earth. Feedbacks, some of them make it even get warmer, some of them actually have a cooling effect. Carbon dioxide, of course, results in a greening of the earth. That has a cooling effect. Carbon dioxide results in the melting of the Arctic ice. That has a warming effect because the blue ocean absorbs more energy. 

So there are all these feedbacks that really, quite frankly, nobody knows how they’re all going to play out as time goes on. But NASA is critical to studying and understanding the climate. And it is true that the president’s budget request for climate science has been strong. And it is also true that right now we have the highest budget in the history of our agency for climate science. 

IRA FLATOW: Bill Nye, head of the Planetary Society, has tweeted that he fears NASA’s next budget, your 2020 budget, will be slashed, compared to years past. What’s your feeling? Has the White House told you anything about that? 

JIM BRIDENSTINE: Well, I’ve been working on the 2020 budget. I’m not allowed to talk about it right now. But here’s what I’ll tell you. On Monday, I’m announcing at Kennedy Space Center what our budget is. We’re going to have as much media attention as we can possibly get. And I’m very proud of the budget that you’re going to see on Monday. 

IRA FLATOW: Haven’t gotten any word, possibly, that the president may take money out of your budget to pay for the wall at all? 

JIM BRIDENSTINE: No. Here’s the thing. The president– I don’t if you’ve noticed. He talks about space a lot. And he recreated the National Space Council to focus on space. 

And he put at the helm of that space council the vice president of the United States. The vice president has been over here at the NASA headquarters three times in the last three months. So I will tell you, this administration is– just look at their budget requests compared to history. We’re in good shape. 

IRA FLATOW: Just to push back from what I said at the beginning. And I want to go on with this because I want to move– 

JIM BRIDENSTINE: Sure. 

IRA FLATOW: The president tried to cut five programs out of NASA’s 2019 budget. And Congress put it back. As you say, they’re fully funded. Let’s move on to a caller. Let’s go to– let’s see– Peter in Berkeley. Hi, Peter. Welcome to Science Friday. 

PETER: Thank you. And thank you for this opportunity. Really appreciate it. It got me thinking about the use of weapons in space. And I looked up the Outer Space Treaty of 1967, ratified by 108 countries by now. And I just want to invite the reflections and comments because it seems like a ban– it does ban weapons of mass destruction and specifically anything on the Moon or other celestial bodies. 

IRA FLATOW: Peter, we’re running out of time. Do you have a question? 

PETER: Yeah. I would like to comment of how NASA’s going to interface. 

JIM BRIDENSTINE: Yes. 

PETER: And shouldn’t we have an international police force instead of any one country? Because what goes around comes around. And it’ll come back at us unless internationally administered. 

IRA FLATOW: All right. What about the space force? 

JIM BRIDENSTINE: Yeah, great question. So a couple of things. Number one, NASA does not do national security or defense. We never have. We never will. That’s not in our agenda. 

We partner with Russia. We partner with other countries, maybe some countries that are not always friendly with the United States. We have, at this point, partners with over 120 countries on the globe and over 800 different cooperative agreements. So what we don’t want to do is we don’t want to delve into national security. When NASA was created by Eisenhower, it was intentionally kept separate from the Department of Defense. 

That being said– and I’m committed to that, just so everybody knows. That being said, when I was in the House of Representatives, we voted on the space force numerous times. I voted on it on the Strategic Forces Subcommittee. I voted on it on the full Armed Services Committee. And I voted on it on the floor of the House of Representatives. It got strong bipartisan support in all of those. And in fact, it got 344 votes in the House of Representatives, which doesn’t happen these days, but it happened when we voted on the space force as part of the National Defense Authorization Act. 

I’ll tell you why this happens. And this is so important for all of the world to understand, especially the United States of America. Our very way of life has been elevated by space capabilities to the point now where we are dependent on space in a way that most Americans don’t understand. The way we communicate– we talk about Dish Network, DIRECTV, XM radio, internet broadband from space. Think about my home state of Oklahoma. A lot of rural folks there, if there is no internet broadband from space, there is no internet for them. 

When you think about not just how we communicate, how we navigate with GPS, how we produce food. I talked about how we’re increasing crop yields right now for certain parts of the United States, eventually all over the world. How we get energy– I mean, the way we produce energy is transformed– and by the way, in a way that is good for the environment. We are detecting leaks of methane and other things during the production of energy that we can then very quickly work to mitigate. 

The way we do disaster relief, and of course, national security. The way we predict weather. When I was in Oklahoma, every year I had constituents dying in tornadoes. We’re moving to a day where we can have zero deaths from tornadoes. That is on the agenda. But the way we do weather prediction, the way we do climate science, the way we understand the changing climate, all of these things are dependent on space. 

Now, here’s what’s important to note. Every banking transaction in this country is dependent on a timing signal from GPS. Every banking transaction in this country is dependent on a timing signal from GPS. So if there’s no timing signal from GPS, guess what? There’s no banking. In other words, there’s no milk in your grocery store. 

That is an existential threat to the United States of America to the point where China has declared space the American Achilles heel. And they’re moving out to deny us the use of space if and when they want to. They’ve also recognized that that timing signal is necessary for the regulation of flows of electricity on the power grid and the regulation of flows of data on the terrestrial wireless networks. We are absolutely dependent on space for our very way of life. And it absolutely must be protected. 

IRA FLATOW: OK. 

JIM BRIDENSTINE: So I’m a big advocate for it, but I will also tell you, that’s not what NASA does. And I’m committed to making sure NASA stays separate from the Department of Defense. 

IRA FLATOW: Jim Bridenstine is the NASA administrator. And I want to thank you very much for taking the time to be with us today. I know you’re pretty busy. And good luck next week on your press conference. 

JIM BRIDENSTINE: Absolutely. Thank you so much.

Meet the Producer

About Christopher Intagliata

Christopher Intagliata is Science Friday’s senior producer. He once served as a prop in an optical illusion and speaks passable Ira Flatowese.

  • Sorely disappointed. Bridenstine shilled for a science denying president, conveniently “forgot” addressing the House of Representatives denying human caused climate change, and repeatedly bragged about himself.

    Please don’t have him on the show again.

  • James Eager

    Very disappointed when I hear a supposed scientist give cover to the science denying politicians. He said that he doesn’t know anyone who denies that climate change is real and has human causes. What nonsense! How about Trump and pretty much the whole republican bunch. Its not just climate science that’s being denied, these science illiterates are using their power to cast doubt on the science of evolution and just about anything that that doesn’t fit with their supposed religious and political beliefs. Yet their only sincere beliefs seem to be in the money and power they can get from their pals in the fossil fuel industry.

    • Chris

      Mr. Bridenstine is not a scientist, he’s one of the science-denying politicians himself. I think he was read the riot act by career NASA officials when he was appointed so he at least knows to keep his denial at bay during his tenure with NASA. But he’s still trying to have it both ways and seems to have settled into the “the climate has always been changing” camp. At least he’s not Rick Perry or Ben Carson or Betsy DeVos or John Bolton or Mike Pompeo or Wilbur Ross or…

  • Jeff Kocher

    He was also disingenuous about “Space Force”. The military already has a joint space command. The only reason Trump and congress are pushing for “Space Force” is lobbying by aerospace and defense contractors who have not been happy with purchases by the existing structure. https://www.latimes.com/nation/la-na-pol-trump-space-20180817-story.html

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