Science

NASA's Bridenstine signals reprieve for endangered climate missions

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Jim Bridenstine

Aubrey Gemignani/NASA

For the past 2 years, climate science at NASA has been on edge, as several missions in development—or already flying in space—have been targeted for elimination by U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration. But a change may be coming next year, according to Jim Bridenstine, a former Republican representative from Oklahoma who survived a long and partisan nomination fight to win confirmation, 6 weeks ago, to the agency’s top job.

The Trump administration’s first two budget requests to Congress have targeted a range of NASA earth science projects for elimination. They include:

  • the Carbon Monitoring System (CMS), a $10 million research program that the administration ended prior to Bridenstine’s arrival;
  • two Earth-facing instruments on the Deep Space Climate Observatory; and
  • three climate-focused missions, called the Orbiting Carbon Observatory-3 (OCO-3), the Climate Absolute Radiance and Refractivity Observatory (CLARREO) Pathfinder, and the Plankton, Aerosol, Cloud, ocean Ecosystem (PACE) satellite.

So far, Congress has taken a dim view of the proposals. A House of Representatives spending panel recently moved to revive the CMS, and lawmakers have rejected the other proposed cuts after broad public outcry.

Bridenstine met with a small group of reporters today at NASA headquarters in Washington, D.C., and re-emphasized his commitment to following the scientific community’s so-called decadal surveys, reports prepared every 10 years that are meant to guide NASA’s investments. The most recent earth science survey, out earlier this year, endorsed NASA’s existing plans, including the endangered missions. And, although Bridenstine cannot comment on what next year’s budget proposal will look like, he’s aware of this endorsement, he said, citing CLARREO and PACE by name. “It seems to me that those will be projects that need to be considered in the president’s budget request to fund,” Bridenstine said.

By the start of the next budget cycle in early 2019, he added, the OCO-3 should be launched into space for mounting onto the International Space Station. “It’s going to be off the table.”

He was less committed to the Earth-facing instruments of the Deep Space Climate Observatory, which has long been an object of derision among Republicans, given that it was born from an idea of former Vice President Al Gore. But he noted the mission’s operating budget is small, a few million dollars a year. “I would imagine that we can cover that by other ways,” he said, without noting an exact plan. “I think they all could end up in good shape.”

Bridenstine’s embrace of these missions goes hand-in-hand with his evolution on climate change, turning from an occasional critic of the scientific consensus to a supporter of the realities of human-driven global warming. “I want to be clear,” he said, “I do believe that carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas—over 400 parts per million at this point, which is greater volumes than we’ve seen before. And that’s because of human activity.”

Although CMS has ended, other climate-related missions under development are continuing, he noted, such as the Global Ecosystem Dynamics Investigation, a laser ranger to study forests, and GeoCarb, which will make geostationary measures of carbon flows in the Western Hemisphere next decade. “We spend over $100 million dollars annually … on carbon monitoring at NASA,” Bridenstine said. “We’re committed to that. And I’m committed to that.”

One concern for Bridenstine since taking NASA’s helm has been the agency’s beleaguered astrophysics division, with news that its troubled flagship, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), would once again be delayed until 2020 and could possibly blow through a congressionally set $8 billion budget cap. The agency’s independent review is not ready to say if that threshold will be exceeded, Bridenstine said. However, even if it is, he will work with Congress to get the telescope reauthorized—”no small task,” he added. “I’m committed to the mission. … And when I testify to Congress I’m going to encourage them to be committed to this mission. We’ve gone a very long way now and at this point, the science that we’re going to get back from the James Webb is sufficiently important that we need to finish the project.”

Such flagship missions as the JWST and its successor, the Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST), do take a toll when they get delayed and chew up budgets, a factor that’s on his mind. “What science are we not doing because we’re continuing to deliver on the James Webb Space Telescope? And that’s going be a significant cost.” The administration has proposed cutting the WFIRST, a development Congress opposed. And although NASA will follow Congress’s direction on the WFIRST, it needs to think about how decisions about such large projects are made in the future, Bridenstine said. “There is hesitation going forward with another massive flagship mission like that when you could in many ways have smaller missions that are distributed or disaggregated, if you will, that can in some cases produce different types of science—but still groundbreaking science, civilization-changing science. … Then, if one them or even a number of them go over cost or have schedule delays, it doesn’t break the bank for all of the other missions.”

Bridenstine has also endorsed the administration’s focus on going back to the moon. He says the advent of reusable rockets and the miniaturization of electronics, among other advances, will make this pivot sustainable, unlike similar programs in the past, while not derailing the goal of landing humans on Mars. The lunar plan, not yet financed by Congress, would twin NASA’s science and exploration directorates, and envisions a small fleet of “commercial” landers returning to the moon soon. How soon? “Aggressively, next year,” Bridenstine said. “Definitely by 2020.” Larger, more capable rovers and landers would follow, and ultimately astronauts.

Mars is still the end goal, he added. “I’ve heard people say that every dollar you spend going to the moon is a dollar you’re not spending going to Mars. We do not want to go to Mars and have our astronauts be marshmallows on the surface of Mars. That is not the goal. We want them to survive. We want them to thrive. We want them to do science. And the way to do that is to use the moon as a proving ground so that when we are landing on Mars we’re capable of doing those things.”

In 2020, NASA will launch its next SUV-size rover to the Red Planet to collect some 30 rock cores that will be cached on the surface. Last year, the agency’s associate administrator for science, Thomas Zurbuchen, proposed a nimble framework for returning these samples to Earth, dubbed “skinny sample return.” Bridenstine admitted he had not yet looked at the details of that plan, but said “we’re committed to Mars sample return. “I can tell you I put a lot of trust into Thomas Zurbuchen. If he thinks it’s a good idea, I probably think it’s a good idea, too.”

Beyond NASA’s science portfolio, Bridenstine reiterated the need to think about what to do with the International Space Station after 2025. (He has proposed some sort of commercialization.) And he echoed support for the Space Launch System, designed to put humans in space, at least until there’s an acceptable, viable commercial alternative that can deliver all its same capabilities.

It’s a lot of decisions for any one person to face, which is one reason Bridenstine added a bit of good news near the end of the interview: He expects the White House to soon nominate a NASA deputy administrator.

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