It has been a week of major changes for NASA after the top two leaders of the agency's human research program were suddenly reassigned without much warning. It was a shocking staff shake, coming months after NASA was challenged to send people back to the moon in 2024. It has led many to suspect that NASA & # 39; s Moon initiative may not run as smoothly, or that White House has become involved.
The edge spoke to NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine to better understand why these changes were made and what this means for the future of NASA & # 39; s lunar initiative, called Artemis. Bridenstine explained that the Artemis program is still very intact, but in the coming months we will get more emphasis on how NASA plans to use Artemis to go to Mars in the future.
This interview has been slightly adjusted for clarity.
I think this decision surprised many people. Can you say exactly where the decision came from? Did it come from you, or did it come from the White House?
Mine. It came exclusively from me. Bill Gerstenmaier has been a great leader of the Directorate for Human Exploration and Operation (HEO) for a long time and we love him. We love the work he has done, and we are grateful for his service to NASA and the country.
But I think we are in a time when we need new leadership and I have made the decision that we would reassign him and have a new leadership in HEO.
I read in today The New York Times that you recently spoke to Trump about the Moon and Mars, so I just want to confirm that this decision didn't come up during that meeting or with someone in the White House.
Not at all. Not once.
Can you tell us more about your meeting with Trump and what you have been talking about?
It was very short. I had often heard him talk about Mars in the media, and I just got out and wanted to make sure we were on the same page. We want to talk about Mars, and certainly we want to go to the moon to go to Mars, because that is the path.
And he said, "Absolutely. You must go to the moon to go to Mars, because I certainly understand that." He also says he wants us to talk about Mars. He said this is the generation that will inspire the nation, and he says, "So keep talking about Mars." And that is exactly what we do.
The plans have not changed. We go to the moon and we go to Mars.
Can you give a little more insight into the explanation for the personnel change? What caused it now exactly?
We aim to ensure that in 2024 we can land the next man and the first woman on the south pole of the moon. That means that we as an agency must focus on costs and planning. We have a history of achieving milestones in terms of costs and schedules, and we are moving in a different direction to ensure that we respond to many reports from the Government Accountability Office (GOA) and (Inspector General) they indicated that we were unrealistic in our cost and time estimates in the past. And we must build more realism in the costs and planning of our & # 39; s and then of course ensure that we reach those milestones.
So was this prompted by the most recent GAO report that appeared on the Space Launch System (SLS)?
There is not one. We must ensure that the costs and planning are correct, because we are moving to the moon by 2024.
How do you think changing leadership will ensure that costs and schedules are met? Do you think this will have a positive effect on employees? What do you hope these changes bring about?
The positions that are now open: Human Exploration and Operations has an associated managerial role that is the head of NASA's human space flight elements. And then there is another position under that leader that we call Exploration Systems Development. That is the department where SLS and Orion are located, so that position is now also open. We will have a new leader in charge of the Gateway and the moon lander. And we want to create a new position for a division that we call Moon to Mars, because when we think of the Gateway and the moon lander, those are capabilities that we want to be able to replicate on Mars. So we call that new Moon to Mars division, and that will be within Human Exploration and Operations.
And of course we must ensure that we inform the credit committees in the House and the Senate before we make those moves. And we are going to do that, but we are looking for that second substitute who can concentrate on the Gateway and the moon lander. So the three top positions within HEO are now open. And we do a nationwide search for the best talent in the entire country.
We let those leaders come in and ensure that we can base a number of our projects and programs again on SLS and Orion and Commercial Crew. Change these & # 39; s programs again and then let those leaders buy what the commitments are, and hold people responsible for fulfilling those commitments so that we can reach our final state, the next man and the first woman at the south pole of the moon in 2024.
Does that mean…
And by the way, it could be two women on the moon in 2024. It doesn't necessarily have to be the next man.
Oh great. Yes, I wondered about that because we always hear about one man and one woman. So it can be two women?
So, given all these changes, does this mean that we can expect some major structural changes in the Artemis architecture?
No, not for the Artemis architecture. All elements are present. We have SLS and Orion. We are going to build the Gateway and we are going to build a lander, and that architecture does not change.
I wonder what "re-baselining" means. Can you name something specific that you would like to see change under this new leadership?
For example, we need new dates for SLS. I mean, I have been very open about the challenges we have had with the SLS program. We know that we will not launch a launch in June 2020 at this time. What we have not yet done at this point is a new date, and I would like to introduce someone who can purchase and help us ensure that every date we select afterwards is realistic, achievable and that we can move to that new one date.
So SLS is an example, but also Commercial Crew must be ground again. So when I say baseline again, I mean rescheduled. People have seen the Crew Dragon blown up during a test of the Super Draco engines that are used during the cancellation of the launch should a performance occur. We will have to invent new data for this and of course ensure that the data for the launch of Boeing will also be blocked, which may need to be adjusted. But we will also have that assessed again.
I also wanted to discuss some rumors I heard about the Artemis architecture there has been some recoil against the Gateway element. Is there any truth about that? That maybe some people in the White House don't want it?
No, there is no truth about that. We are building the Gateway because we will land on the moon in 2024. Without the Gateway it is impossible to go to the Moon. We need extra Delta-V (or a change in speed). SLS and Orion can put us in orbit. But once Orion is in a low lunar orbit, there is not enough Delta-v to get out of the low lunar orbit and come home. So what that means is that we have to go to that almost straight halo orbit, where the Gateway will be and have a lander that is aggregated at the Gateway to go to the surface of the Moon.
So the architecture has not changed. It won't change. These are capabilities that we absolutely must have to land on the moon in 2024.
You mentioned this before, but to be more clear: I have heard some talk that we may soon hear from Trump or the vice-president about more emphasis on going to Mars. But the Artemis program is still part of that, right?
Absolutely. The destination is Mars. The moon is the way we prove the technology and the possibilities that we can bring to Mars. We must learn how to live and work on another world using the resources of that world, namely the water ice.
And not only that, but all technologies and possibilities, and let those technologies be developed so that we can replicate them on Mars. The purpose of the moon is that it is a three-day journey home. So if something goes wrong, we can get it back. We have proved that with Apollo 13. If something like this happens on the way to Mars, it would be over. The moon is the test site. Mars is the destination.
If we are still fully anticipating the moon, when does the planning for the Mars mission begin?
In the coming months you will see more details about a Mars plan that I think people will greatly support. It will be a big problem.
But much has been said about sustainability on the moon. Do we want to create a sustainable outpost on the moon, or will it not work in the long term?
Gateway will be an orbit around the Moon for 15 years, and the lander will be able to go over and over from the Gateway to the Moon and we will have access to every part of the Moon whenever we want. That is the goal. And in fact, we can do that if we want to have people on the surface of the Moon for a long time. And we will probably have to do that to prove the technologies and possibilities for Mars.
But the goal is to go to Mars, and we need to know what to do on the Moon for the Mars mission. It is also true that, because we have international partners and commercial partners, we may want to expand to the surface of the moon. We would love that.
But what we focus on and what we are going to do is to develop the capacities to come to Mars and go for it together with commerce. And if they want to do things on the moon that might be in commercial interest but not necessarily in NASA & # 39; s interest, we welcome that.
It is important to remember that if we build in one place on the surface of the moon, we will know a lot of information about that one place where we landed. That is what we did in Apollo. We landed on the moon six times and we know a lot about the moon at the six locations where we landed. What we have missed for 40 years was the fact that there are hundreds of millions of tons of water ice on the south pole of the moon. So what we don't want to do is limit our ability to access the entire Moon. Not only do we want to go to the moon sustainably, but we want to go sustainably and have access to every part of the moon at any time we want, using technology that will bring us to Mars.
And if there is an industrial partner or an international partner who wants to expand a certain part of the moon, together with us to the architecture, we welcome that.
I understand, but specifically for NASA, is building an outpost on the surface of the Moon currently not the priority?
It depends on what you mean by outpost. We could have several missions on the surface of the moon at the same time. But are we looking for a base on the moon? That is not necessarily the agenda. I am not saying that it cannot be done or that it should not be done or that our commercial partners would not do it. I just want to say that we focus on using the moon for the technological possibilities to continue to Mars. But you know when you talk about an outpost or a moon base, that means 100 different things for 100 different people. It's very hard for me to say, "No, that's not what we do" or "Yes, that's what we do."
But the goal is to have access to every part of the moon at any time and to enable commercial and international partners to join that effort. And if some of them want to build more opportunities on the surface of the moon, that's great for NASA, it's great for science, it's great for our country.
But what we continue to focus on are the capabilities and technology that we need to go to Mars.
To be precise, which parts of the Artemis architecture and which technologies do you develop for the program that will go to Mars in the future?
Gateway is a critical ability. Of course we will need a Gateway-like power on Mars. We will need landers on Mars. Now entering, descending and landing on Mars is very different from entering, descending and landing on the moon. But it is also true that a take-off module from Mars to a Gateway around Mars and a rising vehicle from the Moon to a Gateway around the Moon would be very similar possibilities.
The entry, descent and landing would therefore not be the same, but the rest of the architecture is very similar, if not identical.
You said that we can expect more about the Mars plan in the coming months. When do you intend to perform these functions that have just been fulfilled?
We get these positions full quickly. I don't want to put a date on it, but it will happen very quickly.
These personnel changes also come on the heels of Mark Sirangelo. (Sirangelo is a former NASA official who was selected to lead a new Moon to Mars directorate at NASA, but he left after a month.) That might lead some to think that there is some turmoil within the office . I would like to give you a chance to respond. What about NASA while you try to meet this ambitious deadline?
NASA is a great agency with 17,500 employees and thousands of contractors outside. Every individual is not the key to a certain element or mission.
We love Gerstenmaier. Bill is a great American, and he has done great things for NASA and the United States of America. But we are going in a different direction, so that we can come back to the costs and planning. There is no turmoil at all.