The crew, an American astronaut and a Russian cosmonaut, were only minutes into their flight when a red warning light started flashing and alarms began to blare. Within seconds, their small capsule fired its engines and began hurtling away, trying to put as much distance as possible between the crew and the rocket that was supposed to propel them into orbit but had instead malfunctioned. The 30-minute descent back to Earth violently shook the crew, subjecting them to the crushing pressure of nearly seven times the force of gravity. The capsule eventually parachuted safely to the ground, and the rescue teams collected the crew and reunited them with their families.
Jim Bridenstine, the administrator of NASA, was there when it happened, less than a mile away from the launchpad at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, where the Russian Soyuz program launches astronauts from around the world into space. As the capsule came down, he thought about what he’d have to say if the landing ended in tragedy. “It was very emotional,” Bridenstine told me. “A very difficult day.”
Bridenstine has served as NASA administrator for nearly six months, and they have been quite eventful. Under the Trump administration, NASA put a renewed and intense focus on returning Americans to the moon. The agency lofted several exciting missions into space, such as the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, to discover planets around the brightest stars in the sky, and the Parker Solar Probe, to study the mysterious properties of our sun.
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.
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.
The rescue helicopters got out there and got them. They went to an outlying field, an airplane went and picked them up and brought them back to Baikonur, Kazakhstan, where I was with Nick’s family. We got everybody back together, and it was very emotional, a very difficult day. But everybody came home safely, and we were all thrilled about it.
Koren: Did you consider in those moments, as this was happening, that you could potentially have to make a very different announcement to the country back home, depending on the outcome of the landing?
Bridenstine: Absolutely. That was on my mind the entire time, especially when the last communication that I heard from the crew was that they were at 6.7 g. And then we didn’t have communications for a matter of minutes. Might have been as many as five minutes, but it seemed like it was forever—it seemed like it just kept going on and on. I was thinking about Nick’s family and our own NASA family and the American space program, and what this is going to mean to all of it and how we’re going to communicate that.
The good thing is that for a rocket that failed, everything after the failure went exactly right. It proves the resiliency of the Russian Soyuz system. If we’re going to strengthen the partnership with the United States and Russia on space exploration, I think this was probably one way to do it. Everybody became a lot closer on this day.
Koren: Russian media reported this week that Roscosmos will make three uncrewed Soyuz launches before they put people on again. Do you feel comfortable putting NASA astronauts on a flight after those tests?
Bridenstine: I absolutely do. The last time the Soyuz system had a launch failure was in 1983. It was a successful launchpad abort and everybody walked away healthy. There haven’t been any failures with humans on board since then, so this is a very resilient system—it’s a very safe system. It really is one of the most resilient and capable human launch capabilities that has ever existed. We have a really good understanding of what happened, and Russia has been very cooperative in sharing information and data as they get it. We’re trying to evaluate why it happened and make sure it doesn’t happen again.
Koren: The day after the emergency landing, back in the United States, NASA’s inspector general released a pretty critical report on the progress of the Space Launch System. It mentioned schedule delays and cost overruns that are in the billions, it criticized Boeing’s performance, and even questioned whether this program was sustainable in the long term. What should give taxpayers confidence that the SLS is still worth building?
Bridenstine: [Unlike the Commercial Crew Program,] the Space Launch System is not designed or built for access to the International Space Station. It’s not designed or built for low-Earth orbit. It’s designed as a deep-space transport. It’s the largest rocket that’s ever been built; it’s taller than the Statue of Liberty. If we want to have a long-term, sustainable architecture at the moon that includes international and commercial partners, SLS and Orion are a massive part of that.
It is true that it is well behind schedule and well over cost. The IG report that came out, of course, was not pleasant and doesn’t make anybody here at NASA happy. But there’s a lot in there that we need to take to heart and learn from because we absolutely must be successful in building this sustainable architecture at the moon. We want to be better, we want to learn, we want to move forward, and I think we’re going to be able to do that. The IG report is a good self-awareness tool for NASA and for Congress.
Koren: What is going to be different under your administration when it comes to schedule and cost overruns with big projects that involve outside contractors, not just with SLS, but also with the James Webb Space Telescope?
Bridenstine: We’ve got to really learn how to improve on these cost-plus-award-fee contracts and how to build in accountability in ways that maybe right now are not sufficient. [Editor’s note: These contracts are structured so that NASA assumes the risk of cost overruns, which are likely in large, unproven engineering projects. So if contractors need more money, the space agency gives it to them. Critics of this process say it can actually minimize the fear of missing deadlines.]
And you’re right. It’s not just the Space Launch System, it’s not just the Orion crew capsule—it also includes the James Webb Space Telescope and other programs as well. The answer is, we have to be better as an agency at accountability and making sure that we are either awarding or properly incentivizing our contractors to deliver on time and on budget. We also have to be a lot smarter about how we buy things. We have to know as much about what we’re buying as the contractor knows about what they’re delivering. We can’t be fooled into thinking that they can produce sooner and at a lesser cost than they can actually produce something.
Koren: Do you feel that NASA has been fooled by one of these contractors?
Bridenstine: I don’t know that fooled is the right word. I think the right way to think about it is this: What we’re doing has never been done before. It’s all brand-new. We don’t do production; we do development. When you think about how a company goes about building maybe a couple thousand jet aircraft, that’s production. When you think about building a rocket that’s going to be used once every year at the most, that’s development. We can’t really amortize that over the course of 2,000 launches, because there won’t be 2,000 launches. What I’m saying is, we have to be as smart about how we acquire these things as the contractor is in how they’re going to deliver these things.
Koren: The United Nations recently released a troubling new report on climate change that outlined some of the devastating effects the planet should expect to see in the coming years. You’ve said before that you believe rising temperatures can be attributed to human activity. But many of your fellow Republicans in Congress and the White House dismissed the news. Where do you stand on the report?
Bridenstine: I have no reason to dismiss the report at all. NASA is one agency on the planet that does more to inform the world on how the climate is changing than any other agency, and we’re going to continue to do that.
Koren: Do you see part of your role as administrator of NASA to discuss this with your fellow Republicans?
Bridenstine: My role is to deliver dispassionate science and allow policy makers to have these debates about it. Look, if I start engaging in what to do about the science that we receive, then it politicizes what NASA is all about, and we don’t want to do that. All we’re going to do is study the planet and make sure that all of that data and all of that science is made available to the public.
Koren: Some news reports have suggested that the preliminary results of the ISS investigation, of the mysterious hole that briefly caused a leak, should be out this weekend. Can you give me an update on how the investigation is going?
Bridenstine: NASA is working with Roscosmos, and Roscosmos is leading the investigation. It was originally led by Energia [the Russian manufacturer of the Soyuz spacecraft], and we were seeing some articles that were not appropriate. [Editor’s note: Articles like this one, which reported comments from Rogozin in which he suggested the hole could have been made intentionally, fueling rumors about sabotage.] Energia is no longer doing the investigation. My agreement with Dmitry Rogozin is that we’re not going to prejudge the outcome of the investigation until it’s complete, and I want to make sure that my relationship with him stays very strong. So until I get the results from him, I really don’t want to comment on it in the public, because it will not be good for NASA or Roscosmos if we do things that undermine this relationship.
Koren: So you’ve been in this job nearly six months. What’s surprised you about it so far?
Bridenstine: The biggest surprise has been how the international community is ready to go to the moon. I’ve had meetings with my counterparts at the heads of various space agencies from around the world. Every time I go to one of these events, I’m always going to sell them on our agenda to get to the moon with a sustainable architecture, and they’re ready to go. They’re just saying, tell us what you need us to do, and we’ll go tell our governments and we’ll be on board. It’s really an amazing testament to American leadership, and I was not anticipating it being this smooth. There’s a lot of work to do—don’t get me wrong—but everybody is really willing and able to go back to the moon.
Koren: After you come back from these moon-related meetings, what do you tell Ed Perlmutter? [Editor’s note: Colorado Representative Ed Perlmutter, Bridenstine’s former colleague in Congress, is known for flashing Mars bumper stickers at virtually every Capitol Hill hearing on NASA matters.]
Bridenstine: Well, he’s not opposed to the moon; he just wants to get to Mars as soon as possible. And the moon is our best way to get to Mars as soon as possible.