NASA Administrator Bridenstine: ‘We’re not going to do flags and footprints again’
In the first-ever televised NASA Advisory Council meeting, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine described the United States’ latest effort to return to the Moon as one about sustainability.
During the Aug. 29, 2018, meeting, Bridenstine talked about how President Donald Trump’s Space Policy Directive 1 is different from previous efforts to return the the Moon, which date back to the Space Exploration Initiative of the late 1980s and the Vision for Space Exploration in the 2000s, because it directs NASA to do it sustainably.
“We’re not going to do ‘flags and footprints’ again,” Bridenstine said. “We all look back fondly on Apollo, [a] critically important mission for our country, but when it was over, we didn’t go back to the Moon. We left flags and footprints, and this time when we go, we’re going to go to stay.”
The administrator, who was appointed by the Trump administration and confirmed by the U.S. Senate in April 2018, said NASA will be taking advantage of capabilities that didn’t exist during the previous deep space exploration pushes.
“We have commercial companies that can do things that weren’t possible even just a few years ago,” Bridenstine said. “We also have in the world now more space agencies than we’ve ever had before.”
Without mentioning specific companies, he said commercial and international partners are working on new ways to get to space with reusable rockets. Currently SpaceX is the only company that is actively flying partially-reusable rockets with its Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy. Blue Origin, a company founded by Amazon.com’s Jeff Bezos, is also working on a partially-reusable launch vehicle, New Glenn, which could see its first flight as early as 2020.
“We also want to make sure that if we’re going to go to the Moon sustainably, it’s not just about reusable rockets, which are impressive in themselves,” Bridenstine said. “We want reusable tugs to go from Earth orbit to lunar orbit, we want space station’s around the Moon that can be there for a very long period of time, and we want landers that go back and forth from that space station—or eventually space stations—we want those landers to go back and forth over and over again, reusing the landers themselves. This, ultimately, is how we create this architecture for a sustainable return to the Moon.”
Currently there are a number of companies working on robotic lunar landers of various sizes. Many are competing in a non-cash competition called the Lunar XPRIZE. It was formerly called the Google Lunar XPRIZE until it was determined in January 2018 that no team would make the March 2018 deadline. However, several companies are potentially within a year or two of performing their first flights.
In May, NASA announced the Commercial Lunar Payload Services, which aims to partner with industry to develop Moon landing technologies to send robotic payloads to the lunar surface.
Bridenstine said there is a piece of Space Policy Directive 1 that hasn’t been done before.
“It’s never been our policy as a country before,” Bridenstine said. “We’re going to utilize the resources of the Moon.”
Bridenstine said that from 1969 to 2008, it was thought that the Moon was “bone dry.” Then in 2008, India discovered, and NASA corroborated, that there “are hundreds of billions of tons” of water in the form of ice on the surface of the Moon, particularly at the poles.
In fact, a recent NASA report said a team of scientists directly observed “definitive evidence of water ice” on the lunar surface of the polar regions. The space agency said the deposits are “patchily distributed”—most of the ice at the southern pole is concentrated in craters while ice at the northern pole is more widely, but sparsely spread.
“Water-ice represents life support,” Bridenstine said. “It’s water to drink, it’s air to breath—oxygen. And of course if you crack water into hydrogen and oxygen, it’s also rocket fuel.”
Bridenstine said NASA wants to prove out in-situ resource utilization using resources on the Moon to do more there than possible before.
Also adding to the architecture, Bridenstine said the proposed lunar Gateway will play a big part in this push. However, he emphasized this outpost will be different from the Earth-orbiting International Space Station, both in size and complexity.
“We’re putting a much smaller device in orbit around the Moon that’s going to have access by humans,” Bridenstine said. “It’s also going to be maneuverable. It’s going to have solar electric propulsion. It can not only stay in that near-rectilinear halo orbit where it can be for a very long period of time without burning any station-keeping fuel—in other words a sustainable long-term mission in that orbit.
Bridenstine said that with solar electric propulsion, the Gateway can move to different areas, such as the L1 and L2 Earth-Moon Lagrange points—areas where the pull of Earth’s gravity effectively cancels out the pull from the Moon’s gravity. He said this would allow humans to have access to more parts of the Moon than ever before.
“We don’t want to miss hundreds of billions of tons water ice again,” Bridenstine said. “We talk about what other resources might be there—we don’t know. There could be trillions of dollars worth of platinum group metals.”
The administrator was clear that it is currently unknown if there is an abundance of platinum group metals on the lunar surface, but said that rare Earth metals found in the ground on Earth aren’t actually from this planet, rather from asteroid impacts.
“We know that the Moon has lots of asteroid impacts just like the Earth,” Bridenstine said. “But the Moon doesn’t have an active geology and it doesn’t have the hydrosphere that we have, which means those deposits could be just sitting there as they did a billion years ago. We don’t’ know, I’m not saying that they are. But to the extent that they exist, we need to be actively working to make sure that we find them rather than somebody else.”
Going along with the sustainability theme, Bridenstine said the entire architecture needs to be public and published so that if a commercial company or international partner wants to build their own hardware, it can be compatible with NASA’s.
“We want to be able to do more than we’ve ever done before, so what we’re going to do is build this critical architecture on and around the Moon,” Bridenstine said.
All of this, Bridenstine said, is about retiring risk. He said NASA wants these capabilities, such as proving in-situ resource utilization, to be replicated on Mars once they are proven near Earth.
Bridenstine asked the NASA Advisory Council if they want astronauts to prove all of the required technology for a Mars mission on a seven-to-nine-month journey to the Red Planet where the next opportunity to come home could be up to two years, or if they want to retire all of the risk—technologically and with human physiology—on a world that is only three days from Earth.
“If we have learned anything from Apollo 13 is that we can have things go bad and still make it home. In other words, turn a failed mission into a successful mission. We can do that from the Moon. [If] something like that happens on the way to Mars, it doesn’t work out so well.”
Video courtesy of NASA
Derek Richardson has a degree in mass media, with an emphasis in contemporary journalism, from Washburn University in Topeka, Kansas. While at Washburn, he was the managing editor of the student run newspaper, the Washburn Review. He also has a website about human spaceflight called Orbital Velocity. You can find him on twitter @TheSpaceWriter.