Interview with NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine (Transcript)

From Episode 1 – 11/14/2019

Chuck (host):                     02:29                     Now it is my pleasure to introduce our special guest today, NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine. I was fortunate to meet Jim last week at NASA Headquarters where we sat down and discussed his incredible space journey from flying combat missions for the Navy in Iraq and Afghanistan, to serving on the Science, Space and Technology Committee as an elected official for the U.S. House of Representatives. We also discussed upcoming NASA missions and plans to return humans to the moon and then later to Mars.

                                                                                Jim, thank you so much for joining me.

Jim Bridenstine:                03:40                     Absolutely.

Chuck (host):                     03:41                     Well, one of the things that we love to talk to our guests is their space journey.

Jim Bridenstine:                03:45                     Yeah.

Chuck (host):                     03:46                     But I understand yours is more of an aviator enthusiasts interest.

Chuck (host):                     03:50                     I was wondering if you could tell us more about that?

Jim Bridenstine:                03:52                     So I grew up wanting to be a pilot my whole life and when I was in first grade, my first grade class, we had to draw a picture of what we wanted to be when we grew up, I drew a picture of an airplane. I had myself next to it. I said, “I want to be a pilot,” and I spelled pilot, P-I-E-L-E-O-T. I was first grader of course. And that was what I drew.

                                                                                Now as I went through my life, I went to college at Rice University, I studied economics and business. I had a third major of psychology and I was interviewing to be an investment banker, consulting, those kind of business-related activities. And as I was going through the process, none of those things interested me.

                                                                                So I decided I still wanted to be a pilot. That’s what I’ve always wanted to do. So I looked at the Air Force, I looked at the Navy, I decided I wanted to do carrier aviation.

Chuck (host):                     04:52                     Very nice.

Jim Bridenstine:                04:52                     I wanted to take off and land on carriers. So I joined the Navy, became a Navy pilot. I did that for nine years.

Chuck (host):                     04:58                     Let me talk to you about that because in the Navy you flew the E2-C?

Jim Bridenstine:                05:01                     E-2 Hawkeye.

Chuck (host):                     05:02                     And that was more I guess tactical missions, 333 landings on an aircraft carrier. I cannot even imagine what that’s like. You also flew combat missions in Iraq and Afghanistan. Tell us more about those.

Jim Bridenstine:                05:14                     Yeah, so I was flying the E-2 Hawkeye off an aircraft carrier, the USS Abraham Lincoln. And, our job in the Hawkeye is command and control. So we would take off the carrier and we would have of course, assets at our disposal that were in the air, airborne assets, fighter jets. And we were doing what we called Airborne Battlefield Command and Control. So talking to the troops on the ground, they’re making progress. Maybe it’s going towards Baghdad, maybe they’re taking a certain specific target and they’re coming up against the enemy.

                                                                                And so we have to make decisions as to what are they up against. And we have a lot of troops on the ground in a lot of different locations and we have to get the right weapon on the right target at the right time to protect the troops on the ground as they continue to advance on their targets.

                                                                                And so we find the right plane airborne with the right weapons system, the right guidance system. If it’s cloudy, you don’t want to use the laser guided weapon, you want to use a GPS guided weapon.

Chuck (host):                     06:16                     Makes sense.

Jim Bridenstine:                06:16                     We manage the tanker plan, the fuel states of the aircraft that are airborne, and ultimately we get our assets to a position where they can support the troops on the ground. And that’s what we did in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Chuck (host):                     06:36                     Now I understand after that you ended up transitioning to the F-18 Hornets.

Jim Bridenstine:                06:40                     I did.

Chuck (host):                     06:40                     And helped out with the TOPGUN instructors. Can you tell us a bit more about that?

Jim Bridenstine:                06:44                     Yeah, so I had the opportunity, they were looking for somebody that could teach Airborne Battlefield Command and Control at what we call the Naval Strike and Air Warfare Center at the time, which is the parent command to TOPGUN.

                                                                                So they wanted me to teach in the classroom and I was interested in doing that, but they didn’t have E-2 Hawkeyes there. So I was very clear with my commanding officer that I didn’t want to do that. I don’t want to move to Fallon, Nevada, unless there’s a reason. I want to be able to fly. I mean that’s what it came down to. I wanted to fly.

                                                                                And he said he would look into getting me a transition to the F-18 Hornet and he was able to get that for me. So I did, I transitioned to the Hornet and my job there was, I flew Red Air for TOPGUN instructors that were transitioning from the F-18 to the F-16, and my job was to be a target.

                                                                                So I was Red Air, which means my job was to fly mission profiles, similar to what the enemy would fly and then get shot down and then fly home bravely. So when you get shot down you get to fly home at faster than Mach and lower than 500 feet. So I wasn’t always terribly disappointed when I got shot.

Chuck (host):                     08:06                     That sounds like an incredible experience. Now I understand, and thank you for your service by the way, of course. After the Navy you transitioned eventually to become the executive director of the Tulsa Air and Space Museum & Planetarium. What made you decide to go that route?

Jim Bridenstine:                08:19                     So it’s kind of a long story. My wife’s father had passed away and her mother had multiple sclerosis and she had family in Tulsa, Oklahoma. We needed to move back to Tulsa. So when we left the Navy we tried to put together a plan to move back to Tulsa and I got a job running a nonprofit air and space museum in Tulsa, Oklahoma. And I’ll tell you, I loved it.

                                                                                It was inspiring, the history, and of course the kids, the future. All there in one spot, and it was just a great place to be. So I did that for a couple of years and then ran for Congress.

Chuck (host):                     09:07                     I guess what’s really intriguing to me is sort of this path of space because when you eventually became a committee member of the Science, Space and Technology Committee, how did that evolve?

Jim Bridenstine:                09:17                     So yeah, so I ran for the House of Representatives, representing Tulsa in Washington, D.C. I wanted to be on the Armed Services committee because of my military background. And so I worked really hard to get that, and I was recruited to be on the Science, Space and Technology Committee.

                                                                                One of the things that I was interested in as a Navy pilot was a venture firm, I should say, not a venture firm, but a private company called Rocket Racing. And I invested in an organization called the Rocket Racing League. Now, it ultimately did not materialize into much, but it certainly peaked my interest in the rocket technology. And basically helmet-mounted virtual displays, those kinds of technologies.

                                                                                And what’s interesting is the chairman of the Science, Space and Technology Committee, Lamar Smith at the time, knew that I had this background and knew that I was interested in rockets, and he asked me to join that committee, he actually sought me out and said, “Hey, I want you to join this particular committee.”

                                                                                Plus he knew I went to Rice University and he was from Texas. And so he had an interest in bringing me into the Texas fold, if you will. I’m from Oklahoma.

Chuck (host):                     10:45                     Right.

Jim Bridenstine:                10:47                     But, we had a great relationship. He had me serve on the science committee. But here’s the thing that was important. The Armed Services committee, I served on a subcommittee called the Strategic Forces Subcommittee. That committee oversees all of the military space-based capabilities, national security space-based capabilities. Then on the science committee, I served on the Subcommittee on Space, which oversees NASA and I was chairman of the Subcommittee on the Environment, which oversees NOAA, and 40% of NOAAs budget is space-related activities. NOAA is the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

                                                                                So I was always dealing in the House. I was always dealing with these space-related activities. No matter what committee I was on, I was dealing with space. And so at one point I decided to make a bill called the American Space Renaissance Act. So I took all of the things that I was dealing with on all of these committees and I tried to put it into one big space reform bill. We called it the American Space Renaissance Act. And we knew that we knew that we knew, that it would never have a chance of passing. Well, people say, “Well why wouldn’t your bill have a chance of passing?”

                                                                                Well, because we had provisions in there. For example, we had a provision in there to provide… how do you provide insurance to launch providers? How do you provide insurance to people that are launching things into space? So we had insurance provisions in there. Well that means you have to go through the Financial Services Committee.

                                                                                We had tax reform provisions in there. For example, if you launch on an American rocket from American soil, you get a tax credit. That means it has to go through the Ways and Means Committee. So it touched every committee. We had commercial space launch provisions in there, which means it has to go through the Transportation Committee because they oversee FAA, which oversees commercial launch.

                                                                                We had provisions in there that deal with remote sensing from space, which means you have to go through the committee that oversees commerce, for example, because they do all the regulation on that. So at the end of the day it touched every committee in the House of Representatives, which guaranteed that it’s never going to pass because it’s just too complicated to get a bill to go through all the different committees.

                                                                                But what we did is we said, “Look, we know that there are bills that are going to pass. The National Defense Authorization Act will pass. Defense appropriations will pass, transportation appropriations will pass, appropriation bills in general are likely to pass. So let’s just take all the provisions of the American Space Renaissance Act, even though we know it will never pass as a standalone bill, but we’ll plug them into different bills as amendments when we know that the bills are going to pass.

                                                                                And so we did that for a number of years and got a lot of the bill passed in other bills. You know, I was never really anticipating a position in an administration. President Trump got elected and he went and he talked to senators and he talked to industry he asked people who they thought would be a good NASA administrator I guess. And I know my name came up on a number of different occasions and I got asked to interview. So-

Chuck (host):                     14:15                     That is incredible.

Jim Bridenstine:                14:18                     It all seemed to happen so fast and that’s what’s amazing because it’s only been a year and a half I believe.

Chuck (host):                     14:22                     Yeah.

Jim Bridenstine:                14:22                     And…

Chuck (host):                     14:23                     Here we are at NASA.

Jim Bridenstine:                14:24                     Yeah.

Chuck (host):                     14:25                     With more than 17,000 employees. You’ve got 69 active missions right now. Artemis plans to get back to the moon. Lots of moving parts.

Jim Bridenstine:                14:35                     Yeah.

Chuck (host):                     14:36                     What’s the most difficult thing about running NASA?

Jim Bridenstine:                14:39                     Well, I think it’s a very political position. It is absolutely true that NASA is not partisan. It’s not, but it’s parochial in nature. There’s a lot of special interests. There are people that have… They want funding to this area or funding to that area. When you have a $21 billion budget, members of Congress and senators, they want access to that for their districts.

                                                                                So I spend a lot of time trying to make sure people understand why we’re doing what we’re doing, what we’re trying to accomplish, how it’s good for the nation. And then also working with members of Congress and senators. Working with the Office of Management and Budget and the Executive Branch. Working with the National Space Council, and the Executive Branch, working with the Vice President’s Office, he’s the chairman of the National Space Council.

                                                                                So all of these things take a lot of time, but a lot of it is, it’s a lot of political kind of activities that aren’t partisan, if that makes sense. It’s perfectly predictable. It’s perfectly understandable. But my goal has been to run NASA in an apolitical, bipartisan way as much as possible, so that all of America can get behind what we’re doing.

Chuck (host):                     15:58                     See, I think you do that in a fantastic way, because your enthusiasm really comes through. What excites you the most about all these incredible missions out there? Is there anything that you just are so excited about?

Jim Bridenstine:                16:07                     I think there’s two things. Number one, I’m the first NASA administrator that doesn’t have a memory of where he or she was when we had people living on the moon. I wasn’t alive when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the moon. I wasn’t alive yet when Gene Cernan and Jack Schmitt left the moon in 1972.

                                                                                So we are now at a point, and I’m 44 years old, we’re at a point now where there’s an entire generation of people that don’t have a memory of it because we weren’t alive yet. And so the president has said, we need to go back to the moon sustainably and we want a program that’s not going to end. We want generations from now, people to look back on this moment and say we were doing the right things for the right reasons for generations to come.

                                                                                Now the moon is the proving ground. So I think that’s one thing. We have to do those stunning things where people get enthusiastic about space exploration again. Going to the moon is one of those stunning things, but it is also true that the moon is the proving ground. It is not the destination.

                                                                                We need to use the moon to learn how to sustain life on another world for long periods of time. How do we use the resources of the moon to live and work? Hundreds of millions of tons of water ice on the south pole of the moon. That’s life support. It’s air to breathe, it’s water to drink. It’s hydrogen, which is rocket fuel, same rocket fuel that powered the space shuttles. Hundreds of millions of tons of hydrogen on the south pole of the moon. How do we get access to it? How do we use it? How do we convert it into something that is usable?

                                                                                So those are the things that we need to learn right now today. We need to build an architecture that’s sustainable for the long term, driving down costs, increasing access, and then ultimately bringing in commercial partners and international partners so that we can all do more, and have more access than ever before.

                                                                                Then finally, remember what the destination is. The moon is the proving ground. The destination is Mars. What we architect at the moon has to, as much as possible, be replicable at Mars. And that’s what we need to be striving for every day. The question then becomes, “Well, why do you need to go to Mars?” Well, I’ll tell you why.

                                                                                We have found, and since the time I’ve been the NASA administrator, we have found complex organic compounds on Mars, which are the building blocks for life. They don’t exist on the moon at all. None. But they’re all over Mars. And of course they’re all over the Earth, because we have a lot of life here on the Earth.

Chuck (host):                     18:31                     Yes.

Jim Bridenstine:                18:32                     I’m not saying there’s life on Mars, I don’t know, but we should go find out. We also know that the methane cycles on Mars are commensurate with the seasons of Mars. So the probability of finding life is going up. The plumes of methane that we find coming out of Mars are at the level where people are saying it may not be likely that that’s geological in nature. In other words, the probability of finding life keeps going up.

                                                                                Third, we have found liquid water, 12 kilometers under the surface of Mars. Liquid water. What do we know about liquid water on earth? Wherever there’s liquid water on earth, there’s life. Is that true on Mars? We don’t know, but it’s 12 kilometers under the surface, where it’s protected from the radiation of deep space.

                                                                                So we need to go find life on another world. And I think if, and I’m not saying it’s there, I don’t know, but we should go find out, and if we find life on another world, I think it’s just going to transform how we think about space exploration. There’s going to be so much thirst and so much desire to find out what else is out there.

                                                                                The moon of Jupiter, Europa, it’s a moon the size of our moon, except it’s pure water. It’s all water.

Chuck (host):                     18:32                     Incredible.

Jim Bridenstine:                19:42                     It’s got an ice shell. We’re now finding mass plumes of liquid water being spewed out of the ice shell of Europa. We’re doing a mission to Titan, which is a moon of Saturn and it’s covered in organic compounds. And we’re going to fly a helicopter on Titan. In fact, in 2021 we’re going to fly a helicopter on Mars. The first time we’re going to be flying a helicopter on another world.

Chuck (host):                     20:08                     Incredible.

Jim Bridenstine:                20:10                     Like you mentioned, there’s a lot of missions going on. There’s a lot of activities, there’s a lot of excitement. And we need to make sure that this generation understands that what we are building is sustainable. It’s bipartisan and/or apolitical that we’re going to go sustainably, we’re going to go with commercial partners and international partners. We’re going to learn how to live and work on another world. And we’re going to go to Mars. And the goal is to see if there’s life on another world. And if there is, I think at that point, I think politicians in Washington, D.C. are going to be throwing money at NASA saying, “What else is out there, because we want to know.”

Chuck (host):                     20:48                     I hope so. It is such an exciting time. One thing, you were mentioning other worlds, and one thing that I’m really impressed with–just to close, is Pluto. I love how you said Pluto is the ninth planet.

Jim Bridenstine:                21:03                     Yeah.

Chuck (host):                     21:03                     Tell me more of that.

Jim Bridenstine:                21:03                     Pluto has been abused by scientists now for years and, in my view, it was downgraded in 2006 based on the definition of orbit clearings. So as it goes around the sun, does it clear the area around its own orbit? And I think that’s a really sloppy definition because by that definition, none of the planets are planets. But at the same time, here’s what we found out in 2015, with the New Horizons mission.

                                                                                So Pluto was downgraded in 2006. In 2015 we found out that Pluto has its own ocean under the surface, a liquid ocean. We found out that Pluto has organic compounds on its surface, the building blocks for life. Pluto has a multilayer atmosphere. Pluto has an active geology, Pluto has five moons. A lot of these things we discovered in 2015, so in my view, that is not basically a dead rock going around the sun. That is a planet that is very interesting, and I think in my view, planets should be defined based on their intrinsic values, not what orbit they have around the sun. Because that orbit by the way is always changing and planets are always changing orbits. It’s just the way it is.

                                                                                Basically you’re going to have planets become planets, planets get downgraded planets… So we need to have, in my view, planetary bodies need to be defined based on their intrinsic values and quite frankly, their interest from a scientific perspective. And I will tell you there are not many planets more interesting than Pluto, and we did not know that until 2015. So I think we ought to be really focused on it.

Chuck (host):                     22:48                     That’s fantastic. Well, definitely exciting times, Jim. I want to congratulate you and your incredible team for all the wonderful discoveries we’ve seen so far. We cannot wait to see what’s next. Thank you for joining me.

Jim Bridenstine:                22:57                     Oh, thank you. It’s great to be with you.

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