While taking questions from reporters on Monday, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine revealed what President Donald Trump told him in a June phone call after the president sharply criticized NASA on Twitter for “talking about going to the moon.”
“There was a tweet that the president sent not too long ago that said, ‘talk about Mars, don’t talk about the moon.’ I called him after that, and I was very clear, ‘I want to make sure we’re in alignment,” Bridenstine recalled.
“He was very clear with me: ‘I know you’ve got to go to the moon to get to Mars, but you need to talk about Mars. Why?’ And this is him; he’s saying it: ‘Mars is that generational achievement that will inspire all of America.’ And that’s what he wants to do.”
Trump’s confusing tweet gave the task to Bridenstine of explaining the meaning of the president’s Twitter outburst, much in the same way as other Trump appointees have done in the two and a half years.
“We’re all in alignment that Mars is that generational achievement that we are working toward,” Bridenstine continued. “It is also true that we need to get to the moon in order to learn how to live and work on another world, so that we can go to Mars and build the systems and capabilities necessary to travel to Mars. And we do that from orbit of the moon.”
Bridenstine also said that “the president and [Vice President Mike Pence] are very committed to going to the moon with the purpose of getting to Mars. We’re all in alignment on that.”
The current target date for returning NASA astronauts to the moon — via a NASA project named Artemis, after the Greek goddess and twin sister of the Greek God Apollo — is 2024, but that’s only the beginning.
Bridenstine’s Lunar Gateway
To get to Mars, NASA first has to build a lunar gateway, Bridenstine explained, stressing the point often that it will be a valuable project he wants to see started during his tenure.
“We could in fact do multiple missions on the surface of the moon controlled from the gateway, all at the same time,” Bridenstine said of the base that that would orbit the moon. “And some of those missions could be human; it could be robotic; they could be landers; they could be rovers.”
"Think of it as a reusable command module
“Think of it as a reusable command module in orbit around the moon for 15 years,” he said. “A reusable command module. That means we can use it over and over again for all kinds of missions to the moon.”
Bridenstine said the solar-powered gateway would be the final stop before a journey to Mars for astronauts.
“It also represents a deep-space transport. So when we do our mission to Mars, we already have a vehicle in orbit around the moon that can — no kidding — take our astronauts to Mars,” he said. “We want to have as much technology and capability that we developed at the moon, have it be replicable at Mars.”
2033 Not Out of the Question for Mars?
Bridenstine cast an optimistic note when asked if he thought it was still possible for NASA to send humans to Mars by 2033, in the wake of a report released in February by the Science & Technology Institute that assessed that 2039 might be a more realistic timeframe: “A 2033 departure date for a Mars orbital mission is infeasible under all budget scenarios and technology development and testing schedule,” it reads.
At the relatively small expense of being wrong some 14 years from now, Bridenstine disagreed, putting it this way:
“I am not willing to rule out 2033 at all,” he said. “I think that there were assumptions in that report that maybe not everybody agrees with, including how long you would need to stay on the surface of Mars.
“I think there are alternatives out there that enable a 2033 Mars mission. I am not saying that’s on the agenda. Given the fact that we have accelerated our path to the moon, how then does that accelerate our path to Mars?”
The Monday afternoon teleconference was held to discuss the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission, which saw astronauts launch from Earth on on July 16, 1969, land on the surface of the moon on July 20, 1969, and return safely to Earth on July 24, 1969.
Bridenstine uttered the phrase “stunning achievements” three times during the conference, possibly referring to the advice he received from Trump — and perhaps considering his audience of one.
The NASA administrator answered a question about diversity among the astronaut ranks this way:
“As far as creating even more diversity and even more inspiration and getting the next generation enthused, I think the one thing we can do, more than anything else, is stunning achievements,” Bridenstine said.
"We need to put an American flag on Mars
“The president has said that we need to go to Mars, and we need to send humans to Mars. We need to put an American flag on Mars. That’s the goal. And so I think when that stunning achievement occurs, that will inspire a new generation, just like Apollo has inspired our generation.”
So, Maybe It Won’t Be a Woman, Then?
Bridenstine said Monday “the first woman on the moon will be selected from our current astronaut corps” but stopped short of repeating the comment he made on Sunday on CBS’s Face the Nation that the first steps on the moon in 2024 will be made by a woman.
Bridenstine, a former Republican congressman from Oklahoma, will testify on Wednesday before a congress about the challenges he sees in coming up with price tag for the Artemis program. He told reporters that it could be “significantly less” than the $20-$30 billion range — if private partnerships come into play.
On Gerst: “We Love Him” and Why He Was “Re-Assigned”
The press conference came days after Bridenstine “re-assigned” longtime NASA executive William “Gerst” Gerstenmaier to an advisory position. The official reason was that it had to due with meeting the Artemis goal of getting astronauts back to the moon by 2024.
Bridenstine said the decision was his alone and did not come from Trump. He said that Gerstenmaier’s ability for managing in an era when there was not White House support for human space flight didn’t sync with the current administration’s backing of it. Gerstenmaier held the position of Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations from 2005 to last week.
“I made a decision that we needed to reassign Bill Gerstenmaier and I want to be really clear: We love him because of what he’s done, not just for NASA but for the country,” Bridenstine said. “We have this opportunity before us because of his hard work and dedication.”