Jim Bridenstine: It is my intention to make sure we keep our relationship strong and not let space get entangled with terrestrial challenges
New NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine is on a first trip to Russia. After visiting Star City and speaking to students at Moscow State University, he went to Baikonur Cosmodrome, where he met with Roscosmos head Dmitry Rogozin to discuss the joint exploration of space and where the two plan to watch the launch of an expedition to the International Space Station. Bridenstine spoke to Interfax correspondents Dmitry Veklich and Nikolay Vlasov about the prospects of carrying out joint space flights, the future of the International Space Station, and Russia-U.S. cooperation in building manned infrastructure in lunar orbit.Question: The first question is about the International Space Station (ISS). We know the expiry day is coming closer. What do you see it in the future after 2024? Is it going to be a national station for each country, or is it going to be an international one?
Answer: The International Space Station is right planning to go through 2024. The president‘s budget request has said that we are going to end the direct funding in 2025 with the intent to commercialize the low-Earth orbit in 2025. So, that is being said and I support that policy. It is also true that it appears the Congress has other ideas. The Congress is maybe looking to extending it to 2030. There is a bill in the House [of Representatives] and a bill in the Senate that would do that, and of course as NASA administrator I will follow the law, whatever law Congress passes. It is really unknown at this time what that law would ultimately say, but in either case it is incumbent upon us how to figure out how to commercialize low-Earth orbit, and the intent is for NASA to be one customer of many customers operating in the low-Earth orbit and to have multiple providers that are competing against each other on cost and innovation. If we can have a competitive market place in low-Earth orbit for human habitation where NASA can be one customer of many customers, and we have multiple providers competing on cost and innovation, it drives down our cost, it increases access, and then NASA can use its resources to go further. We can go to the Moon, we can go to Mars, and ultimately that is the goal. The goal is to – we‘ve been in the low-Earth orbit now for 18 years straight on the International Space Station, of course, that can go at least till 2024 and maybe longer, but what we have to do is to is that we have to figure out how do we go further. And in order to go further we need to free up resources that are currently in the low-Earth orbit, and so we free up those resources by commercial operations and then use NASA‘s resources to go to the Moon and on to Mars.
Q.: And could it still be an international station?
A.: Yes, we foresee international collaboration in the low-Earth orbit, and we want to see international collaboration with a sustainable architecture on and around the Moon. Space exploration has been international for a long time. There are now more international partners than ever before, more countries with space agencies than ever before, and space is one of those areas where whatever disagreements we might have on the ground, we are always able to collaborate in space. So, yes, we want to see a lot of international collaboration in space.
Q.: Now about the Lunar Orbital Platform. We learnt that the Russians were supposed to make air locks. Could their participation be increased? Are they interested in doing something more?
A.: We are working with them on what their interest is in collaboration. But certainly we are interested in having them participate at whatever level they like to participate. We want it to be a truly a collaboration, international cooperation, so yes, if they are interested in more, that is something we are interested in as well.
Q.: Does NASA have any information that would make it clear what has recently happened to the hole in the Soyuz spaceship? Are you willing to share some data?
A.: We are letting Roscosmos continue its investigation, and I don‘t want to do anything that would get in front of that. I know NASA is working collaboratively with Roscosmos, but until we finish the investigation I don‘t want to prejudge what caused it...
Q.: There is a lot of speculation...
A.: There is a lot of speculation, and we need to put that aside, because a lot of it is rumor, innuendo, even conspiracy, and none of that is really helpful. We want to do a very serious and thorough investigation, and when it is complete reveal those results.
We are confident that the design of the Soyuz habitation module is solid. We are working with Roscosmos, providing as much information as we have, making it available to them as they go through this investigation. Internally in NASA we believe that the activities going on at the ISS right now are not in jeopardy in any way. If we thought that for one second, we will not be leaving our astronauts and cosmonauts there. We need to very dispassionatelly allow the investigation to go forward. Without speculation, without rumor, without innuendo, without conspiracy and once we get complete with the investigation than we can make assessments as to what may or may not have happened. We are very confident right now that the ISS safe and working fine.
Mr. Rogozin and I are both committed to make ensure that the relationship between our space organizations remain strong. I have confidence in his leadership, and I hope he has confidence in my leadership that at the end of the day I do have. I strongly believe that we are going to get the right answer to what caused the hole on the ISS, and that together we will be able to continue our strong collaboration.
Q.: And how do you participate in that?
A.: We have a lot of capabilities from sensors and data that we have on the International Space Station, so we share that information, and we work side by side with our Russian counterparts to get all the information we can get. In November, some cosmonauts are going to do an EVA, an extra-vehicular activity, a spacewalk, and we are going to see the outside of the International Space Station, where the hole is, and it will help us understand when the hole was made and that kind of things.
Russia is currently the only country that is taking cosmonauts and astronauts to the outer space. The agreement expires actually next year. You will have a manned spacecraft by 2020. But if you don‘t have it by then, what will you do then? Will you continue with the Russians?
We are fully anticipating that what we call a commercial crew, which is the United States‘ access to the low-orbit with humans. We fully anticipate that it will be ready by the middle of 2019. We do have seats on Russian Soyuz rockets that would take us through February 2020. So, we fully anticipate that we are going to be ready, and we have a margin there to play with, as it exists right now. So, even if we are not ready in the middle of 2019, if it extends up a little bit, we‘ve a plenty of margin, I believe. But certainly we want to make sure that the partnership stays strong when we do have our own commercial crew capability. We envision our astronauts flying on Soyuz rockets, and we envision cosmonauts flying on commercial crew with U.S. astronauts. So, we want to make sure that the collaboration stays strong. Everybody knows how impressive the Russian Soyuz capability has been throughout the years. It‘s proven, it‘s great and impressive capability, and we want to preserve it. So, we look at it as having redundancy but not a replacement. We want to make sure we continue...
Q.: But are you going to discuss with Mr. Rogozin the possible extension of the agreement?
A.: It‘s not off the table, but we don‘t foresee it being necessary at this point.
Q.: Will ISS expeditions remain international after U.S. manned spacecraft are put into service?
A.: Absolutely. Space is unique and whatever disagreements we have terrestrially, whatever interests we have diverge, we have been always able to maintain strong collaboration on space, and that goes back to 1975 with the Apollo-Soyuz collaboration, or, as I have learnt, in Russia the Soyuz-Apollo mission, but that strong working relationship has been there for a long time. We want to keep it solid and we certainly foresee – we see Russia as having some amazing capabilities that are valuable for all of humanity, and we hope that our capabilities are valuable for all of humanity, and we really see that we can do more together than we could do independently.
Our collaboration after Apollo-Soyuz ultimately resulted in NASA’s participation in the Mir Space Station program. We used space shuttles to take our astronauts and their cosmonauts to the Mir Space Station. That led to the International Space Station, where we’ve been working for 18 years. Our relationship is very strong, and whatever happens terrestrially, we’ve always been able to keep space exploration and discovery and science separate from whatever terrestrial disputes there may be or whatever interests we have that don’t align. It is my intention to make sure that we keep our relationship strong and not let space get entangled with terrestrial challenges.
Q.: In your opinion, are there risks that the current tension between Moscow and Washington "on the ground" will have an impact on interaction in space and lead to an arms race in space?
A.: From a NASA perspective, we have always been able to take disagreements and divergence of interests off the table and collaborate with Roscosmos to do really impressive exploration. It is my intent, as NASA administrator, to make sure that NASA and Roscosmos stay above any political disagreements between our nations, that we are able to continue to collaborate as we always have, even when our interested are not aligned terrestrially. We want to make sure that we stay, that we continue this collaboration in a very positive way for the future.
Q.: What are the prospects for Mars exploration, maybe Venus exploration and could the lunar station become the first step towards the creation of an orbital spaceport for manned flights to Mars?
A.: Yes. We are ready to collaborate on Mars and the Moon. In fact, Russia has created some neutron capabilities to understand the surface of the Moon and to understand where the water is on the surface of the Moon from what we call the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, and one of the sensors on the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter is a Russian sensor that is helping us to understand and map the water on the surface on the Moon. In fact we have a similar capability on Mars right now with the Mars Curiosity rover. Again Russian instruments are helping us understand the composition of Mars. We are already collaborating on the Moon, we are ready collaborating on Mars. Certainly, there is in the future missions to Venus, and we are going to understand Venus even better than we already understand, and again it should be and will be a collaboration. As far as the Gateway – we call it the Gateway – the lunar orbiter, the Gateway will be a collaboration that will help us understand the Moon better than we ever understood it before. The first time we landed on the Moon was in 1969, and from 1969 to 1972 there were there were six Moon landings with 12 humans, and all six of those landings were on the equatorial region of the Moon. From 1969 all the way up to till 2008 we believed that the Moon was bone-dry. In 2008, Indian had a mission that helped us understand that there could be water ice on the surface of the Moon. Then in 2009, we had another mission with international collaboration, and we discovered that there are hundreds of billions of tonnes of water ice at poles of the Moon. What that means is water ice represents life support of water to drink, air to breathe, but it also represent rocket fuel – hydrogen and oxygen – what is necessary for rocket propulsion. We have on the surface of the Moon hundreds of billions tonnes of rocket fuel. We missed that since 1969 up until 2008 - 39 years – we missed that major discovery. Well, now do we know it‘s there, How can we collaborate to use it so we can go further than we have ever gone before? I do believe that the first gateway in an orbit around the Moon – think of it as a reusable command module, so we can go back and forth to the surface of the Moon over and over again, and it has propulsion – solar electric population. So, it is just not going to be just in equatorial orbit around the Moon, but it can go to the L1 point and the L2 point, and it is going to able to take landers to the surface of the Moon from all angles. We are going to learn more about the Moon than we have ever learnt before and we are going to get really good information on where the water ice is and ultimately how we can prospect for the water ice and maybe even utilize the water ice. The first gateway, the first Lunar Orbital Platform, the purpose of it is to get more information about the Moon than we have ever been able to get before and to get humans, and landers, and robots to the surface of the Moon to a resalable command module in an orbiter around the Moon and not just an orbiter around the Moon but a maneuverable to go to the north of the Moon, to the south of the Moon and everything in between. The second gateway - this is the horizon goal, this in the future – the second gateway would be a deep-space transport, and that could be the tool that we use to get to Mars with humans for the first time.
Q.: And how much time will the second stage take?
A.: Well, we have a lot to learn, and we are going to learn it on the Moon. That‘s really what‘s best about the Moon. It is a proving ground, and it is only a three-day journey home. We learnt on Apollo 13 what happens if something bad happens on the way to the Moon, we can get home. Mars is seven month away. If something bad happens on the way to Mars, chances are you are not coming home. The Moon is the best proving ground to prove the technologies, to reduce the risk, to prove the human physiology, and then take all what we learn to Mars. Depending on what we have learnt, we could be going to Mars within 20 years, and if we want to get to mars as fast as possible, the Moon is the best proving ground to get there.