Recently NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine held a televised town hall in which he fielded questions from employees of the space agency. Inevitably, the question of climate change came up. Bridenstine, when he was a member of Congress, expressed skepticism of human-caused climate change, based on the belief that measures that were being proposed to combat it would harm his constituents in Oklahoma. The statement that was made on the House floor came back to haunt the congressman during his confirmation hearings for NASA administrator when Democratic senators attacked him as a “science denier.”

Bridenstine changes his mind about climate change

During the hearings at the town hall, and again during recent congressional testimony, Bridenstine “revised and extended his remarks” by stating that human-caused climate change is a real phenomenon.

He also promised that there would be no attempts to use political influence to sway the conclusions of NASA’s Earth scientists on the extent and severity of the problem.

The exchange raises the question, what role could NASA play in dealing with climate change?

Studying the Earth from space

Clearly, because the space agency studies the one planet we’re most familiar with - Earth, NASA has a big part to play in understanding the extent of the phenomenon. However, the edict of no political interference goes both ways. Scientists have to be free to go where the evidence leads without fear of being labeled either “hysterics” or “deniers” depending on what they find out.

Developing new sources of energy

The second role that NASA can play is in the development of energy production technology that does not rely on fossil fuel to produce electricity. The space agency has been active in creating sources of power such as fuel cells, solar panels, and RTGs (Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generators) that create electricity from the decay of plutonium for spacecraft.

Recently NASA proved the concept of a small, advanced nuclear reactor called "kilopower" that puts out one to ten kilowatts of electricity. At the high end, such a reactor would generate enough electricity to power two single-family homes.

Could any of these technologies be adapted for civilian use? The idea, for example, of a backyard nuclear reactor that sends excess power to the grid under a net metering arrangement might be beguiling.

However, regulatory impediments aside, one might foresee some customer resistance to such a product, no matter how technically safe it is.

The prospect of mining the moon and asteroids, combined with space manufacturing, has revived the 1970s concept of space-based solar power. The idea is that using lunar and asteroid resources, robotic manufacturing and 3D printing technology could be used to build gigantic solar arrays in geostationary orbit. The arrays would collect sunlight 24/7 and use microwaves to beam it down to collectors on Earth, which would then transform it into electricity to feed to the grid. The technology is well understood, but there has been no way to do it inexpensively enough that the technology could compete with Earth-based sources of energy, both fossil fuels, and renewables.

With launch costs coming down thanks to the efforts of companies like SpaceX and the push to mine extraterrestrial resources, the cost of space-based solar power may come down.

NASA’s primary role is to explore space, to understand its nature and phenomena, and to create the technology in which to do so. However, the concept of technological spinoffs, while sometimes overhyped, is real. More important, access to space may well be a way to transcend the fossil fuel economy, creating new and more sustainable ways to generate the energy needed to keep our civilization growing and thriving.

People who believe that climate change is a real and immediate problem will win. But people who fear that proposed solutions would cause an increase in the cost of energy and a decrease in their standard of living will be reassured, as well.

NASA, led by a man who has been labeled a “climate denier,” may be crucial in making that future happen.

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