One thing new NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine has shown is that he values the history of space policy. In his first public speech last May, after taking over the reins of NASA, Bridenstine cited a number of previous human exploration programs proposed by Republican and Democratic presidents that fell by the wayside. “Times have changed,” Bridenstine said. “This won’t be Lucy and football anymore.”
This week Bridenstine visited Johnson Space Center for the first time as an administrator. On Friday, he will unveil the first astronauts who will fly into space in about a year aboard the Boeing Starliner and SpaceX Dragon commercial crew vehicles. As part of the visit, he also answered questions from a handful of media outlets for an hour on Thursday. Ars urged Bridenstine why things would be different from past failures to return astronauts to the moon or continue on to Mars.
In short, he believes that reusability — from rockets to lunar landers — is the breakthrough technology that enables deep space exploration.
go to the moon
“We want the whole architecture between here and the moon to be all reusable,” Bridenstine said. When the space program can reuse its rockets, spacecraft, deep-space stations and landers, it makes the program sustainable. What the White House doesn’t want, he said, would be a program that spends a lot of money and sends people a handful of times to the moon before retiring to low Earth orbit.
“We know how rocket reusability has changed the game of access to space and how it’s just cut costs, and it will continue to drive costs down,” Bridenstine said. “So at NASA we have to look at things differently. We have to be a customer when we can be a customer. We want to have multiple providers when we can have multiple providers all competing on innovation and cost. having an opportunity that didn’t even exist five or ten years ago on the commercial side.”
In response, Ars noted that the Orion spacecraft has some potential for reuse. NASA designed the deep space capsule so that the avionics and precious computer cases can be pulled out and placed in a new spacecraft, and eventually the space agency would also like to reuse the Orion structure.
However, the large rocket that NASA has been developing since 2011, the Space Launch System, is completely replaceable. It costs $1 to $2 billion per launch, compared to much cheaper (and moderately less capable) commercial vehicles.
A senior NASA official at the table, Mark Geyer, director of the Johnson Space Center, replied, “It’s a good question about the rocket.” What the SLS brings, he said, is massive Delta V capability that, combined with Orion’s tugboat capacity, was needed to build the Deep Space Gateway. “Energy is an important part,” Geyer said. “So it is a large rocket, with a large size. To date we have not been able to reuse that.”
Bridenstine, however, would not be deterred from his interest in the potential of commercial companies to lower the cost of spaceflight.
“But if we can take advantage of the commercial industry that can develop a reusable rocket, we want them to be successful,” he said after Geyer finished speaking. “We want to partner with companies that are willing to go the extra mile and meet that challenge. It’s not an ‘either/or’. Right now, SLS and Orion will be our best, closest capabilities, but if in 10 years, in 20 years is a commercial capability that is successful, we’re going to use it. And we want them to be successful. In fact, today we work with those companies on commercial crewing and other things.”
A clear change
This approach differs significantly from Bridenstine’s predecessor as an administrator, Charles Bolden. Although Bolden strongly supported SpaceX in his capacity as a provider of cargo and crew services for the International Space Station, he did not much appreciate his efforts to build heavy rockets in a comparable class to the Space Launch System that could be used for exploration of the spacecraft. deep space.
In 2016, at the Space 2016 Conference of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, Bolden was asked about his views on the emerging market for small satellites and launch vehicles. He chose to respond instead with his thoughts on NASA’s own rocket, the Space Launch System, and the development of larger launch vehicles in the private sector.
“When you talk about launch vehicles, we believe it is our responsibility to the nation to take care of things that normal people can’t or won’t do, such as large launch vehicles,” said Bolden. “I’m not a big fan of commercial investment in big launchers yet.”
Times seem to have changed. For Bridenstine, in addition to international partnerships, it is these investments by commercial companies in large reusable missiles and other technologies that can make all the difference.