It can’t have been easy to be NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine on Friday, when his boss Donald Trump — the man who appointed him with a specific mandate to return the agency to the moon — appeared to reverse the course of U.S. space policy in a tweet.
“NASA should NOT be talking about going to the Moon,” Trump wrote indignantly. He shifted focus to the agency’s next planned destination, Mars. In fact, Trump himself had been talking up NASA’s planned lunar mission, called Artemis, as recently as last month.
Bridenstine, an avid Twitter user, took a couple of hours before making the best of a confusing situation.
A week before the fateful tweet, however, Bridenstine could not have been more hands-on in pushing Artemis — the moon mission which aims to send at least one female and one male astronaut to our rocky satellite’s South Pole in 2024. (Trump’s own National Space Council is so keen to get to the moon soon, it recently brought the date forward from 2028.) “We’re going back to the moon, and we’re going to stay,” he told me. “Not just flags and footprints this time, a real presence.
Bridenstine is such a hands-on kind of guy, in fact, he was practicing landing on the lunar surface himself when he said that.
A small group of journalists and the local Democratic congressional representative had been invited to NASA Ames in Silicon Valley for one-on-one rides and chats about Artemis, a relatively new plan which we’re all just starting to get details on, while we flew. It seemed, shall we say, a weird flex (Bridenstine is a former Navy pilot), but OK.
NASA administrators normally come across as colorless bureaucrats. Maybe this new-broom flyboy has the moxie necessary to sell a moon plan to an ever-skeptical Congress, which will need to sign off on funding it; maybe the agency’s long-adrift space policy will finally be going somewhere.
I was no great fan of Bridenstine’s going into the meeting (as a GOP Congressman, he was a climate change denier, though he has since recanted). But during our short lunar trip, he helped make me a believer in Artemis. And it seems I’m not alone.
“He’s a breath of fresh air at NASA,” says Clive Neal, a Notre Dame professor who has been both an adviser to and a skeptic of the agency for many years. Bridenstine’s tireless advocacy for the new moon plan within NASA, Neal adds, “is just what the agency needs to get back to doing what it was designed to do.”
Whether he can keep his boss convinced, however, is another question.
Fly me to the moon
I’ve had some fairly odd interview settings in my time; questioning Steve Jobs inside the cramped confines of a Pixar artist’s cubby hole usually comes to mind. But none had ever required me to wear a crotch harness — standard operating procedure for NASA Ames’ Vertical Motion Simulator (VMS), just in case it crashes, which it never has — and a pilot’s headset.
We could actually hear each other pretty well inside the makeshift lunar module, but Bridenstine — whose appearance and persona can best be described as “boyishly enthusiastic” — takes his sims seriously. So much so that we did the trip twice: one time with the VMS pretending to be the original 1969 Apollo Lunar Module and one time as the lander planned for Constellation in the 2000s.
Constellation was the previous moon mission planned by the last GOP president. It was scrapped by the last Democratic president, who preferred we go to the asteroids, then Mars. (You can see NASA’s perennial problem.)
Both landings, on what appeared to be a virtual launchpad surrounded by solar panels, were pretty much flawless. “I’ve never done it before today,” said Bridenstine, a distinct note of geek pride in his voice. The VMS operators had done to him what NASA used to do to the Apollo astronauts. They threw unexpected anomalies into the simulation the second time around, but thruster and drift problems were all corrected, and we touched down with the mildest bump.
“Welcome to the moon,” Bridenstine said, beaming. The whole experience reminded me of nothing so much as Space Camp for adults.
Earlier that day, Bridenstine had made another smooth touchdown with another new part of Artemis. He announced $250 million in contracts had been signed for delivery of small payloads to the lunar surface. Contracts made not with the usual suspects, big defense contractors like Lockheed Martin or Boeing or even Elon Musk’s SpaceX, but three venture-funded space startups whose names you’re unlikely to know.
“Some of them will fail, but the return on investment when one is successful is going to be huge,” Bridenstine said. “It’s a very Silicon Valley story.”
So far, so uncontroversial; Bridenstine’s plan to reward scrappy small businesses has been widely applauded. The deal could effectively fund more of a launch infrastructure in cis-lunar space, which is the kind of thing we need to do to grow an asteroid mining economy, which would be enormous ROI. (Bridenstine brought up the prediction that Earth’s first trillionaires will be asteroid miners.)
The controversy currently rocking the space geek community is the next part of Artemis, known as Gateway. This is a space station designed to orbit the moon pretty much permanently, at which any vehicle (not just NASA’s) can park before hopping to the surface. The cost of Gateway is still uncertain — as is the cost of Artemis overall, unofficially estimated to be in the $6 billion to $8 billion range beyond NASA’s current budget.
Some critics call Gateway a boondoggle, pointing out it’s only necessary because NASA’s upcoming Space Launch System is a far bulkier system than is strictly needed for a moon landing. (Because, ironically, the SLS was designed to go to Mars.)
“This idea that you’re going to put your base for the moon in lunar orbit, rather than on the surface, makes no sense at all,” Dr. Robert Zubrin, an aerospace engineer, author and veteran advocate for Mars missions, said on the podcast Mars Talk. “It takes more propellant to get from there to the surface than it can pick up.” (Part of the point of going to the South Pole is to explore the ice there, and ice can be broken down into hydrogen and oxygen for rocket fuel.)
NASA has to fit its square Mars pegs into round moon holes.
Clive Neal, the NASA adviser/critic, concurs. “I don’t like the Gateway,” he says. “The high orbit in particular is ridiculous.” But he adds that it’s too late to redesign the SLS and its Orion capsule before the 2024 due date, and we have to work with what we’ve got. NASA has to fit its square Mars pegs into round moon holes, if you will.
Ultimately, the experts agree that we just don’t know enough about what we’ll find on the moon (is that lunar ice in a form we can dig up, or is it too mixed up with all the moon dust?) to make long-term plans about our presence there. More study is needed, in short, so we just need to get there any which way the NASA budget will allow.
“The SLS doesn’t have the guts to get to lunar orbit,” Neal says. “In the long-term, we need to think about making our space hardware destination-agnostic.” But maybe, Neal adds, building the Gateway is part of the process of learning how to do that. Even if it isn’t necessary for lunar landers, a Mars version of the Gateway will be more useful.
“It’s a necessary evil,” he says. “You’ve got to infuse Mars ideas early in the process — because it’s not the moon or Mars, it’s the moon and Mars.”
Bridenstine gets that. Whether Congress and Trump do too — and whether the necessary funding materializes — remains to be seen. But the flyboy will do his damnedest to bring Artemis in for a smooth landing.
Welcome to the moon.