At the same time, NASA has struggled to complete projects that remain on the ground. In June, officials announced that the James Webb Space Telescope, the scientific successor to Hubble that was supposed to launch in October 2018, would be delayed until March 2021 and would require $800 million more to complete. Development was plagued by technical mishaps by the project’s contractor, Northrop Grumman, a federal report found.
In October, NASA said its burgeoning astronaut-transportation program would continue to run behind schedule. The first test flights by SpaceX and Boeing, the companies providing the technology, have been pushed to 2019.
Read: A failed launch may ground the world’s astronauts for the foreseeable future.
And last week, the office of NASA’s inspector general published a scathing report about the Space Launch System, the rocket the agency hopes will someday carry astronauts to the moon and beyond. The blame fell once again on the project contractor. Boeing, the inspector general determined, was responsible for billions of dollars in delays.
On top of that, NASA is currently waiting on the results of a Russia-led investigation into a mysterious hardware malfunction on the International Space Station that Bridenstine’s Russian counterpart briefly suggested could have been a product of sabotage.
I spoke with Bridenstine on Thursday about the nerve-racking Soyuz launch failure, the state of NASA, and his plans for the agency. Our conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Marina Koren: You were in Kazakhstan when the Soyuz capsule had to make an emergency landing. When did you first learn that that was happening, and what were your immediate thoughts?
Jim Bridenstine: I was with my counterpart, Dmitry Rogozin, the general director for Roscosmos, the Russian space agency. We were out at the launchpad—there’s a viewing area that’s maybe three-quarters of a mile away from where the launchpad is, and in that viewing area, there’s a couple of small houses that he had access to. So we were outside, we watched the launch. It was absolutely beautiful. Everything looked like it was going according to plan. The rocket eventually got to where it was just a tiny little dot in the sky.
I went inside the house and started listening to the data that was coming. It was coming in in Russian, and I had an interpreter with me. At one point, I heard the interpreter say that [the crew told flight controllers], “We have a feeling of weightlessness.” And I thought that might be a little odd this early in the launch, because they were still being propelled [to orbit]. And then I heard the interpreter say that “we’re feeling 6.7 g” [6.7 times the force of gravity bearing down on them], and that’s when I realized that this has been a launch abort.
Rogozin stood up and he was speaking Russian with all of the engineers and technicians that were around, and then he just left the room. We got on our bus and headed back to the area where the American engineers and experts were. On the way there, we were communicating via text and phone; we were trying to figure out where are they in the launch-abort process. Because at this time, they’re 200 miles downrange, so we can’t really see anything, and the communications way out there are not good because it’s literally over the middle of nowhere in Kazakhstan. So we lost communications for a matter of minutes. Eventually we got it back. The crew was communicating with the rescue helicopters, and they were saying that they were in good condition.