Bridenstine: This is Our Sputnik Moment & The Moon Will Ensure U.S. Preeminence in Space
Exclaiming "this is our Sputnik moment," Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-OK) told an audience of lunar scientists and entrepreneurs tonight that the Moon is the pathway to American preeminence in space. He also addressed comments made several weeks ago by his colleague, Rep. Brian Babin (R-TX), that seemed to contradict his approach to government oversight of commercial space activities, saying that the two views are closer than they appear.
Bridenstine, a former Navy pilot elected to Congress in 2012 who has term-limited himself to three terms (he is in his second term now), has become a leading advocate in Congress for passing laws that create a stable legal and regulatory environment for new types of commercial space activities. A member of both the House Science, Space and Technology Committee and the House Armed Services Committee, he has a broad outlook on U.S.civil, commercial and national security space issues. He introduced the American Space Renaissance Act (ASRA) earlier this year as a compendium of legislative provisions that can be incorporated into various pieces of legislation, including authorization and appropriations bills. Commercial space is one of the themes in ASRA.
He spoke at a meeting of NASA's Lunar Exploration Analysis Group (LEAG) being held at the Universities Space Research Association's headquarters in Columbia, MD. The three-day meeting, which concludes tomorrow, has sessions ranging from deeply scientific to highly commercial.
Bridenstine took the theme of lunar science and resource utilization and ran with it. His closing sentences summed it up: "This is our Sputnik moment. America must forever be the preeminent spacefaring nation and the Moon is our path to being so."
The discovery of water ice at the lunar poles by DOD's Clementine mission, which originated with DOD's Brilliant Pebbles concept as part of the Reagan-era Strategic Defense Initiative, should have "transformed" the U.S. space program, he asserted, because of the significance of finding water there. He foresees a cis-lunar industry based on servicing and maintaining Earth-orbiting satellites that includes refueling those satellites using liquid oxygen and hydrogen produced from the Moon's water ice. If existing satellites can be refueled and otherwise maintained, fewer new spacecraft can be launched, reducing costs and the space debris population. He views the government's role as risk reduction to "empower" commercial companies to establish such industries.
Creating a U.S. legal framework to encourage investment in such businesses is key, he stressed. Bridenstine is a leading advocate of expanding the FAA Office of Commercial Space Transportation's (AST's) regulatory authority to include "enhanced payload reviews" for new types of commercial space activities to ensure they comply with the 1967 Outer Space Treaty. He has worked closely with industry, especially through FAA/AST's Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee (COMSTAC), to advance that idea.
COMSTAC adopted an OFR (Observations, Findings, and Recommendations) at its meeting last week recommending that the government take "expeditious action to enable a safe, predictable, and conducive environment for the growth of commercial space operations and activities..."
Babin expressed an opposite point of view in September, insisting that no legislation is needed. Instead, he argued, the private sector should be able to do whatever it wishes in space and the burden should be on the government to demonstrate why government intervention is needed, not on the private sector to follow regulations.
Though the two philosophies seem at odds, Bridenstine said tonight that, in fact, they are not as far apart as they may seem. Both he and Babin want minimal regulation and a free market in space for a broad range of commercial activities.
Bridenstine, however, strongly believes that legislation is needed. The Department of State already has said it does not have the tools to say "yes" to new commercial activities to ensure U.S. compliance with the Outer Space Treaty, he said. That means there is a risk that a U.S. company could proceed with an activity only to have the State Department stop it at the last minute because of a protest by another country. Such a risk could dampen investor confidence. Also, Congress should be involved in setting the legal regime, rather than the Executive Branch alone, so that it can endure through successive administrations.
A "rock solid ... airtight" regime is needed so "that when you get your authorization, you know, not with absolute certainty, but you're pretty darn certain, that you're going to be able to launch." That means Congress passing a law that includes an enhanced payload review process that provides "maximum regulatory certainty with the minimum regulatory burden" implemented by FAA/AST. "Enhanced space situational awareness [SSA] and reporting" also is needed. The Air Force does not have the necessary resources to provide SSA for non-DOD entities and is not a regulatory agency, so FAA/AST should take on that responsibility as well, he said, repeating comments he has made in the past.
Bridenstine's remarks tonight went further, branching out into threats posed by China, a country that understands "the geopolitical value of space operations." The possibility that the "highly valuable platinum group of metals are much more available on the moon from astroblemes than they are on earth" could explain China's interest in the Moon, he said. "Such a discovery with cis-lunar transportation capabilities ... could profoundly alter the economic and geopolitical balance of power on Earth."
To "enable freedom of action, the United States must have cis-lunar situational awareness, a cis-lunar presence, and eventually must be able to enforce the law through cis-lunar power projection. Cis-lunar development will either take the form of American values with the rule of law and private property rights, or it will take the form of totalitarian state control. The United States can decide who leads."