Exit Interview With Jim Bridenstine

Keith's note: I did a 30 minute exit interview with Jim Bridenstine on Tuesday. Here is a verbatim transcript (there may still be a few typos).

NASAWATCH: Most people who become NASA Administrator tend to do so at the apex of their career and then dial things back, jump on a few boards, and then retire. Yet you have decades ahead of you. This is unusual. Normally I am talking to people who are in their 60s you know "yea, my wife wants me to take 6months off and do nothing ...". Where do you go from up - when you have done something like this at such a young age?

BRIDENSTINE: 'll tell you - this is going to be hard. There is nothing that is going to match the experience that I have had at NASA. The future out there of course is unknown. I know here at least initially I am going to be coming back to Oklahoma. I have some prospects for employment but I don't want to disclose those or make any announcements at this time - but I am going to be back in Oklahoma. ... I have a very strong direction that I am heading but I am not going to make any announcements until next week.

NASAWATCH: So ... you're not filled with a case of Potomac Fever?

BRIDENSTINE: No (laughs) I am very happily coming back to Oklahoma and am excited about participating in my kids' basketball games, and swim meets, and Boy Scouts, and all kinds of other activities that I have missed over the last 8 years.

NASAWATCH: I recall talking to you before you were confirmed. You looked forward to the challenge - you sought it out - but sounded a little overwhelmed at the sheer magnitude of what NASA does. Looking back - what things initially struck you as being devilishly hard that ended up being easy - and what things did you expect to be easy only to find that they were hard?

BRIDENSTINE: The workforce at NASA was overwhelmingly accepting and encouraging and supporting. I had talked to Sean O'Keefe before taking the job and he said 'look, there's going to be lots of support - there's great people there. And when you show they are going to be anxious to help. I will tell you that I found that to be true. NASA is an exceptional group of people. This should not be surprising given the legacy of NASA and how many people want to work at NASA. We really do have bright people but also people that are deeply caring for each other. That was a great thing to walk into and experience.

As far as the challenges go - it is daunting when you step into a new organization as big as NASA with 10 centers across the country. Plus there is work that is done for NASA outside those centers by contractors and universities and then you've got all of the international partnerships - so there is a lot of international travel. It is daunting to think of all of the things that NASA does and all of the things that have to be done on a day to day basis. But we hit the ground running. Within months we had visited every center at NASA, sat down and listened to the center directors, and the deputy center directors. We did a town hall at every NASA center to listen to all of the employees, and the contractor employees.

And then we started formulating, based on the direction we were getting, what are plans would look like - and how we'd put together an agenda to get to the Moon. And then that agenda to get to the Moon got accelerated to 2024 so we had to reassess those plans. And of course the reassessment required additional funding so we had to quickly work with OMB, the National Space Council, and members of Congress. And sure enough we were able to garner the support for an accelerated program.

There is a lot happening at NASA all the time - every day. And the big thing is that there a lot of wonderful people that are more than willing to step in and provide the support necessary to achieve the outcomes that we desired.

NASAWATCH: You were quite the Energizer Bunny. You quickly became NASA's chief evangelist and never passed on an opportunity to take selfies and meet people. To be certain you met lots of famous people. I guess it is fun to hang out with them. I have heard this from other NASA administrators - there's always the smaller moments when you just pass someone in the hallway or someone just comes up to you. Of those moments, are there any that struck you as being the most memorable or profound - and why?

BRIDENSTINE: There are so many folks - I do not have any one particular story. but it is amazing to see the impact that NASA has on young people. And without question those were among the best interactions that I had. Whether it was with high school students or even middle school students - even college students - the impact that NASA has to engage folks to go into the STEM fields is remarkable. It cannot be dismissed. It is an important capability that NASA brings. And young folks bring such a different dynamic and energy that I think is critically important for the agency.

As you saw, whenever we were doing congressional outreach - outreach to Senators - we would go to various states and universities and talk to the young folks. We would visit high school as and junior high schools - all over the country. There is no doubt that the impact that NASA has from an educational perspective and a STEM perspective is amazing. And seeing how NASA's investments - whether it is a contract with a university or EPSCOR, or Space grant, how those investments are really changing the lives of young people. I think that those are engagements that are remarkable.

NASAWATCH: One of the things that pops up as NASA promotes these things is "the first woman and the next man" thing. You get these tag lines and they tend to show up everywhere in every interview about everything. But it does say something - that you are being very specific about how the crew will be put together. And then you went and actually named a bunch of Artemis astronauts. And there is often a referral to the "Artemis Generation" which sort of reflects on me since I am an Apollo Generation baby. The folks who are retiring from NASA now still have a pilot light that was lit back in the 60s. So I am wondering: as you put forth the notion that this is a movement or a generation, do you see that coalescing into an actual thing or are these just tag lines what you use right now for your bumper stickers and then the next guys will use other ones?

BRIDENSTINE: Our goal has been to create a sustainable program. To do that you really have to engage the public in a major way. And I know that some folks in the media say " you keep saying the same line over and over again." that we are sending the first woman and the next man to the Moon". And it is true, I do say it over and over again. The reason is because every story that gets written will have a different audience. Maybe they will reach somebody new that hasn't heard about the Artemis program. I do think that Artemis is exceptional in the sense that unlike Apollo, today we have this very diverse and qualified astronaut corps - one that includes all of America. Again, that is a line I have said over and over again because people need ot know that America's space agenda is for everybody and yes, that it reflects all of America, and that every young person can see themselves participating in it.

And I do like the fact that we have used the term in every speech that I have given recently. And since we had the Artemis program established I use the term "Artemis Generation". And Keith, you know this, I might have gotten that from you. And when I heard Keith Cowing say "Artemis Generation" I immediately thought that that was a good line - one that this generation needs to buy into. We love the Apollo generation for what they did for science and discovery and of course for the global power competition that was going on at the time in the Cold War.

The Apollo generation is magnificent. But our generation is entirely different. We are the Artemis Generation. Our program that reflects all of America, includes commercial partners and international partners. So this time when we go its not just with all of America but we are also leading the world in a coalition of nations to go to the Moon sustainably - this time, to stay. We are driving down costs, we are increasing access, and we are enabling all of America to buy into this program. If I am judged in the future it should be based on whether this program continues. And if the answer is yes then I will be satisfied that I have been successful.

NASAWATCH: Often times when you talk about what you are doing, why you are doing it, who you are doing it for, and who benefits from it you bring it up as the Artemis Generation as a cohort of people who are going to move forward in time. NASA is simultaneously talking about its "stakeholders". And that is one of those words that is usually seen as being the White House, Congress, contractors, the lobbyists, the 'usual suspects" as I usually call them - you know, people inside the Beltway. And often cities like Houston and places where there is a NASA center get all the attention. Yet a lot of people sit back and say 'but wait a minute - there's 328 million people that are either paying taxes or going to school develop the careers to become the Artemis Generation. I know that you have tried to break out of that mold. Where have you had the best success in terms of reaching new audiences and what audiences do you wish that you could have done better with?

BRIDENSTINE: I think we should do more. One of the areas where I think we have had some success is in agriculture. One of my goals as NASA administrator has been to find where there are divisions and eliminate them. Some of the examples - and I know that you are very familiar with them Keith, were this: Republicans wanted to go to the Moon, Democrats wanted to go to Mars, Republicans were for human exploration, Democrats were for the Science Mission Directorate which is robotic exploration. Some folks were for traditional ways of doing contracting and others were for Space Act Agreements and new ways of doing contracting. All of these things split people and put them into camps and ultimately prevented us from coalescing around big ideas to accomplish things together. So we wanted to eliminate division.

One area where there was division was around Earth science. It seemed to me that Democrats wanted to fund more Earth science, Republicans wanted to fund less Earth science. But the bottom line is that Earth science is critically important to the constituents - the people - who are represented by both republicans and democrats. First of all climate change is happening. Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas and we need to be able to measure and understand Carbon dioxide and how humans are influencing the temperature change that we are seeing. Those are all very important.

It is also important to remember that those same satellites That help us understand Earth's atmosphere and Earth in general, are also capable of helping us understand the surface of the Earth. I think about how Earth science is supporting research for the agricultural industry and how important that is for rural America. There are a lot of Republican members in the House and Senate that NASA's Earth science budget and its capabilities are going to be able to deliver more food than ever before. For food security, we think about using Landsat to cover evapotranspiration which is a measure of how much moisture in the soil is evaporating and how much the plants are transpiring. So you get a measurement of how hydrated plants are. And based on soil types, plant types, the region of the world, etc. you can make assessments of very precise irrigation metrics.

And we have proven, through NASA's Earth Science Division, is that we can increase crop yields while reducing water usage by as much as 25% and preserve nitrates that are in the soil which, of course, is what enables us to increase the crop yield by very precisely irrigating. Not over irrigating or under irrigating but precisely irrigating And that is really good for America's farmers and I think that it is something that Republicans and Democrats can buy into on the Earth science side of things. I really believe that the goal has been to find areas where we can unite people in a common cause to improve things and use science to benefit all of humanity. Look at how Earth science is benefiting agriculture. This is an area that most of America is not familiar with and that NASA should continue to push forward on so that people understand that we are going to help feed more of the world than has ever been fed before. That is a great export for the United States.

If you look at ECOSTRESS on the International Space Station which measure stress on plants from space, this can sense plant dehydration and if you catch it early you can irrigation going earlier. Then there is GRACE Follow-on which is an Earth science mission that helps us understand how water is moving around. With it we can detect - very early - and even predict - drought. With that information we can mitigate disasters ahead of time. NASA was involved with helping Uganda mitigate a disaster back in 2017 that was related to drought. And this not only benefited the people of Uganda by saving lives but it also benefited the American taxpayer. Instead of having to respond to a crisis we could mitigate it ahead of time so that a crisis could be averted. All of these capabilities from an Earth science perspective are important. Sharing the value of Earth science with rural America is important. And we really worked on that but there is more to be done.

NASAWATCH: This reminds me of something. When I look at the Mars 2020 mission it is going to be flying a little drone - the Ingenuity helicopter. Right off the bat you just look at this thing and you think OK, this is aeronautics. Reynolds numbers and all of that. People can't imagine that you can fly on Mars but it is actually quite easy to do. And then you think about it a bit further and ask where are drones being used on Earth? You just mentioned agriculture. People are using them in agriculture and are combining GPS and geolocation and satellite imagery from smallsats. You would think that you should be going over to the NASA Aeronautics or Technology websites to see how they are helping with the Mars 2020 mission. But they do not talk about it. And if you go to NASA's Earth Science website - which is run by the very same Science Mission Directorate that runs Earth Sciences they do not talk about it either. There is an obvious analog there. And what is the most popular gift under many Christmas trees? Drones. You would think that this would be such a no brainer sort of thing to be highlighting and yet you do not see it being done.

So - my question (there is one here) NASA buys its stove pipes by the truckload when it comes to outreach. You put a memo out a in May 2019 that says 'OK we are going to cut down on the number of websites and make them more interactive'. From what I am told, and I regularly highlight this on NASAWatch, zero progress has been made. Why is it that NASA doesn't seem to want to tell a single, coordinated story about what it is doing. The various parts of NASA all seem to want to go off in their own little direction. There does not seem to be a 'bigger picture' at work here. Often times some of these audiences you have not reached don't understand these NASA stove pipes. They don't understand that when you use the phrase "space Science" that NASA people jump up and down and say that it is a specific formal discipline with a name and a budget. And yet people out in the real world would just take "space science" to mean anything that NASA does - in space. It is a frustration obviously with me - and you wrote that memo - and I have not seen the action pan and it has been 2 years, so ...

BRIDENSTINE: We have been working on updating the website and making it more interactive and doing those things. It is not ready to rollout but that day is coming. As far as breaking down the stove pipes: this is something that is a challenge in every large organization. One of the areas that I really worked on at the very beginning was focused on eliminating divisions. There has always been this idea that Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate (HEOMD) is responsible for the Moon and that everything beyond the Moon is the responsibility of the Science Mission Directorate. One of the things that I tried to do early on was to say, Look, we're going to go to the Moon with the Science Mission Directorate. And we are going to go with commercial landing systems that are going to take NASA science payloads to the surface of the Moon. So we put together the CLPS program - Commercial Lunar Payload Services - and we ran it out of the Science Mission Directorate.

Some of the other things that we did to break down the stove pipes included taking the Biological and Physical Science Division and its International Space Station responsibilities from Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate and moved it to the Science Mission Directorate. I know that this is something that is very near and dear to you Keith. We moved it over since we thought that there was a value of the Science Mission Directorate to get involved in these sort of activities and to create a multidisciplinary - transdisciplinary - approach to achieving objectives. It is not about science or human spaceflight it is about both. It is not about whether the human division can go to the Moon or science division can go to the Moon. Part of trying to eliminate the stove pipes is often cast as zero sum games where 'if this group of people gets resources then the other group people does not'. We tried really hard to figure out where those hotspots were and tried to break down those stove pipes. You are absolutely right, Keith. There is more to do - and if I stayed longer we would be continuing to work on those areas.

NASAWATCH: OK, this is a quick thing. People have had second acts. My old boss Jerry Brown did the whole governor thing - twice - separated by decades in between. If you were tapped to run NASA again 20 years from now, (other than the "Back to The Future" thing where you talk to your future self) what would you expect to see NASA doing and what would it not be doing. And the Artemis Generation is still in various levels of education right now. What would they take from things happening now and how would they do things differently than we have done it. This is a generation that has grownup with video games and computers. And I used a slide rule in high school.

BRIDENSTINE: I think 20 years from now that we will be sustainably on the Moon. I think we will have first boots on Mars. And we will be in low Earth orbit. Things that we won't be doing: NASA won't be building hardware to go - or operate - in low Earth orbit. NASA will be a customer in low Earth orbit. Low Earth orbit will be commercialized. There wil be private - commercial - space stations doing research, of course but also manufacturing - pharmaceuticals and advanced materials - that will be using the value of microgravity. NASA will be there as a customer but we are not going to be owning or operating hardware. I really think that this is what the future of NASA looks like.

And if I were to come back 20 years from now, I'd probably say OK, we've commercialized low Earth orbit, let's move forward at a more rapid pace and commercialize the Moon - and every location where commercialization can take place, we need to do that. That enables the pie to be bigger so that there are more resources for all the activities that we want to do in space. I think the future is really bright. Like you said there's a lot of young folks who have grown up in a world that is entirely different than what we grew up in. They are going to bring a new and fresh set of ideas and concepts that are going to be transformational in human spaceflight.

NASAWATCH: OK. One last thing: Spaceballs. Really?


NASAWATCH: Ok, this is real now. This isn't you trying NOT to foment a civil war between Star Trek and Star Wars fans. You are INDEED a Spaceballs fan?

BRIDENSTINE: I am indeed a Spaceballs fan. But more specifically, I am a fan of Barf the Mog. Barf the Mog is half-man, half-dog. As he says he is his own best friend. And I will tell you, as the NASA Administrator, as I try to balance all of the interests of all of the stakeholders, quite often I felt like I was my own best friend.

NASAWATCH: Well, what was it that President Harry Truman said: if you want a friend in Washington, get a dog.

BRIDENSTINE: Yes. (laughs)

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This page contains a single entry by Keith Cowing published on January 21, 2021 4:20 PM.

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