GRAND FORKS — The University of North Dakota’s relationship with NASA was brought to the forefront on Wednesday, Sept. 4, with a visit from the agency’s top leader.
NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine, alongside Sen. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., spent time touring UND’s space-related facilities, including its Mars habitat. The two also participated in a town hall discussion with UND students, faculty and staff.
UND has a strong research relationship with NASA.
UND’s Human Spaceflight Laboratory, which was formed 15 years ago, focuses on the research, design and production of spacesuit and habitat prototypes. UND is the first university with a NASA-funded laboratory dedicated to designing and constructing space-exploration and planetary surface-exploration suits.
UND is also the first university with two fully operational spaceflight simulators.
Bridenstine said there are a number of tools to connect universities, such as UND, with NASA.
Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research helps universities across the country that may not have a large NASA presence get involved with the organization’s research.
“I loved visiting up here; they said ‘this is the home of NASA in North Dakota’,” Bridenstine said, speaking of UND. “Looking at the facilities here ... it feels like a NASA center.”
The National Space Grant College and Fellowship Program also helps connect students with NASA centers. Bridenstine said he talked to students who had completed internships and fellowships with NASA. Now those students can take that knowledge and apply it in the classroom, sharing it with their professors and classmates.
From time to time, NASA reaches out to universities directly to work on projects, including atmospheric research and development of spacesuits at UND.
“I think those are very valuable for the future of NASA,” Bridenstine said. “This is what I love about the University of North Dakota; the students are involved, they’re getting hands-on experience. When they graduate, it’s not just chemistry, calculus and physics, but it’s also real-world experience that they get to apply when they graduate whether they go to work for a contractor or go to work for NASA.”
Cramer said many students graduating from UND can go to work for a NASA contractor.
“The relationship between commercial entities and NASA itself is a part of the sustainability of the program,” he said.
During the town hall meeting, Bridenstine was asked questions about NASA’s mission to reach the moon by 2024 and then eventually reach Mars. Students asked about the safety of astronauts during these trips and also asked about topics such as space law and how potential communications delays could impact space exploration in the future.
The mission to return humans to the moon is called “Artemis.” Bridenstine has been adamant that the mission will deliver the first woman to the moon. But the project, which was accelerated by four years under President Donald Trump’s administration, still needs a lot of funding.
During the town hall meeting, a faculty member asked Bridenstine if the Artemis project would actually be successful, noting previous moon missions lacked full support and eventually fizzled out.
Bridenstine previously told CNN that making the 2024 landing happen would probably require another $20 billion to $30 billion on top of the agency’s normal budget, Space.com reported. That would be an extra $4 billion to $6 billion a year.
Bridenstine said previous missions did not happen because the funding sources came from places that could be politicized on multiple levels, whether they included taking money from space centers or other areas of the organization. The length of time the missions take to complete and the number of administration changes that can occur also can cause the missions to be killed, Bridenstine said.
NASA already excels at science, Bridenstine said. Now, the agency must figure out how to improve at political science to ensure the missions are completed.
Bridenstine, who said he believes the project has support from both sides of the aisle, has spent time traveling the country to meet with legislators. Last week, he met with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and northern California Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Calif., who each gave support to Artemis.
“We do have very strong, bipartisan support,” Bridenstine said.