Change agent for aerospace U.S. Rep. Jim Bridenstine, R-Oklahoma Jim Bridenstine is unusual for a U.S. congressman. References to aerospace technologies and the companies that build them flow easily and accurately from him, perhaps because of his history as a Navy pilot and now an Oklahoma Air National Guard pilot. Bridenstine is not ruffled when pressed on his skepticism about human-induced climate change, and he relishes making his cases that NOAA should make more use of weather data from privately owned satellites, and that the U.S. is financing Russian military programs. Bridenstine came to office in 2013 determined to lift the U.S. from what he sees as its declining stature as a space power and to make Oklahoma safer from the tornadoes that ravage the state every year. He may get only 2 ½ more years to do that, because he believes members of Congress should serve no more than three terms. He says this November’s election will be his last race for Congress. Bridenstine spoke with Ben Iannotta by phone from his office in Oklahoma. Why is it you believe so strongly in term limits? This kind of public service was intended to be temporary. I believe that’s what the Founding Fathers envisioned, that’s what they intended. You seem like a man in a rush to get a lot done in a short time. Is that one of the effects, too? Motivating? The rush has absolutely nothing to do with term limits. It has to do with the fact that this country has threats, and we need to make sure that we’re doing the right things to mitigate those threats. I see the word renaissance in [your bill] American Space Renaissance Act. Can you diagnose how the U.S. lost its edge in space? It’s not so much that the United States lost its edge. It’s that technology has changed. We now see the miniaturization of electronics. We see that the cost of launch is coming down. Now you’ve got companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin and ULA [United Launch Alliance] that are initiating reusable launch vehicles. Access to space is now pervasive. If we’re going to remain the preeminent spacefaring nation, we have to make adjustments. That’s the intent of this bill. Does the 1967 Outer Space Treaty still make sense? We have heard the State Department tell members of Congress that they don’t believe they have the authority to give the green light for some of these non-traditional space activities: asteroid mining, or in-space servicing of satellites. We need to update our regulatory authorities to make sure that the State Department can’t at the last minute say no to those entities that are trying to accomplish those objectives. Article 2 says a sovereign can’t appropriate a celestial object by claim or occupying it. Does that restrict a private company’s ability to mine asteroids? No. We passed the space act [the Space Launch Competitiveness Act] not too long ago. It clearly states that we believe that we have those authorities, that we can extract resources from celestial bodies and it’s not a violation of the Outer Space Treaty. How big a problem is orbital debris? Absolutely huge. It’s a problem that cannot be ignored any longer. It is not just about debris, it is about protection of space. The Chinese have tested direct-ascent anti-satellite missiles all the way up to geostationary orbit, which is where our communication architecture is. Space is no longer a benign environment where nobody can threaten. On top of all of this, there are 23,000 pieces of trackable orbital debris. We have already hit something called the Kessler Syndrome [which] says that even if you launch nothing new into space, we will continue to create orbital debris just from collisions that are happening. Why can’t the Defense Department just stay in charge of watching all of that? DoD will always do space situational awareness, and DoD will always protect space assets. I don’t want to change that at all. But I will also tell you that DoD needs its men and women at the JSPOC [Joint Space Operations Center at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California] to be focused on fighting and winning wars and not doing conjunction analysis for the next time a weather satellite is going to run into a communications satellite. At the JSPOC, they get up in the morning and they spend the first couple of hours trying to determine if a screw that was launched in 1974 is going to run into the International Space Station. That’s critically important work, but it’s not what the Department of Defense ought to be doing. What’s your favored solution to reliance on the Russian RD-180s rocket engines? We’re over here focused on the RD-180 engine, but in the meantime we’re spending billions of dollars flat out launching our assets on Russian rockets and our astronauts on Russian rockets. If you look at Orbital ATK with their Antares rocket, they’re using the [similar RD-181]. That in itself is funding Russian space-based military operations. The issues are much bigger than the RD-180, but we [do] need to get off the RD-180, and we need to do it as soon as possible. I am not somebody who would suggest that we need to cut off our nose to spite our face. We need to do it smartly. We need to have assured access to space, and we need to do it in a way that doesn’t break the budget. Which means, temporarily, we will be dependent on the RD-180. This in itself is a failure of government in Washington, D.C. How much of a priority should NASA or NOAA give to gathering climate-related readings? I’m a guy that comes from Oklahoma and I have absolutely no problem studying the climate. That’s what these assets do. They study the climate. There’s nothing wrong with that. Is there any data that would change your view that fossil fuels and human activities aren’t warming the climate? If you look at the Chinese and the Russian and the Indian production of carbon emissions, it is overwhelmingly massive compared to the carbon footprint of the United States of America. If we unilaterally damage our economy while they continue to grow their economy by damaging the environment, then we’re not serving ourselves well. The United States does not have a big enough carbon footprint to make a difference when you’ve got all these other polluters out there. So why do we fundamentally want to damage our economy even more when nobody else is willing to do the same thing? Couldn’t the U.S. be a leader in that case? That’s what we have been. That’s the irony of the whole thing. We have this huge economy by comparison to all these other countries, [and] our carbon foot print is smaller than theirs by massive amounts. So we have led. The question is, “Who’s following?” Tell me your view on human contributions, if any, to what’s happening with the climate. I would say that the climate is changing. It has always changed. There were periods of time long before the internal combustion engine when the Earth was much warmer than it is today. Going back to the 1600s, we have had mini Ice Ages from then to now. But isn’t it like you’ve rented a car. You’re going downhill, and gravity, a natural force, is making you go faster, or it could be because you’ve got your foot on the accelerator, a human force. That’s why we need to continue studying it. Again, I am not opposed to studying it. What you’ll find though is that the space-based assets that are studying climate change are not in agreement with the terrestrial assets that are studying climate change. In fact, the space-based assets are not corroborating some of the data. How is the drone business going in Oklahoma after being turned down as an FAA test site? There are capabilities that we can use, unmanned aerial vehicles, that can help us predict tornadoes hours in advance instead of minutes in advance. In Oklahoma, we have a program called the Oklahoma Mesonet and every county has a tower that is collecting boundary-layer data. The boundary layer is about 4,000 feet [1,200 meters] and below. The boundary-layer data is very important for knowing the energy levels so that we can better predict severe thunderstorms and tornadoes: If we had a quadcopter that could go straight up and straight down and collect the data in the atmosphere all the way up to 4,000 feet and then come down, you’re getting temperature, pressure, and humidity for the entire boundary layer across the entire state of Oklahoma. Because of privately owned weather satellites, do you foresee NOAA getting out of buying satellites? I don’t. I’ll tell you why. Nobody cares more about that government backbone than the guy who represents constituents in Oklahoma. But I will also say that we can augment the data with new sources and more resilience. The more we can disaggregate the architectures, the more resilience there will be. The quickest way to do that is to take advantage of commercial operators. Remember, the Chinese shot down a weather satellite. It was their own weather satellite, but it was a weather satellite.
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