An open letter to NASA’s administrator: Democratizing America’s space enterprise

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This letter originally appeared in the May 14, 2018 issue of SpaceNews magazine.

Dear Administrator Bridenstine, Jim,

Congratulations on becoming NASA’s 13th administrator. Now that you have “launched to the 9th floor,” you’re beginning the hard but fun part: leading America’s iconic space agency in opening space to “the rest of us”: scientists and students, engineers and entrepreneurs, teachers and technologists, and citizens who want to participate. You are leading NASA at an exciting time, as NASA broadens and deepens its partnership with the U.S. commercial space industry to transition the nation’s continuous human presence in low Earth orbit (LEO) from a mostly government-led endeavor to a sustainable commercial ecosystem, while sustainably returning human presence to the moon, and bringing commerce along for the ride. Some observers will argue you have a very tough job ahead of you, with many important capabilities scheduled to come online, each with challenges still to overcome. But I would argue that your tenure will be marked by the unprecedented opportunities you will see and pursue, creating even greater possibilities for America’s — and Americans’ — future in space. Here’s why:

Strong Fundamentals:

1) You have an extraordinary team of passionate, smart, and hardworking professionals that love what they do at NASA. For the sixth year in a row, NASA was rated the Best Place to Work in the Federal Government, and knowing your leadership skills and management style, I’m sure that streak will continue. Just as importantly, a new and diverse generation has been working alongside those at NASA who helped build the space station, repeatedly repaired Hubble, landed rovers on Mars, and visited Pluto.

2) You have an American public that not only supports NASA, but is increasingly excited by space overall. In a recent public opinion poll, NASA was shown to be very popular, with 68 percent of the American public expressing favorable views of the agency.

3) You have continuing bipartisan support from Capitol Hill. Your former colleagues in Congress appropriated NASA $20.7 billion for FY 2018, and the House has proposed an additional $810 million for FY 2019.

Exciting & Unique Opportunities:

1)There is strong support from President Donald Trump, Vice President Mike Pence, and the reinvigorated National Space Council and its dedicated professional staff of leading space policy experts. To accommodate new private-sector capabilities, the Department of Transportation is streamlining launch and reentry regulations to allow increased flight rates, which increases affordability, reliability, and frequency of space access for NASA and other federal space users. The Commerce Department is setting up a new regime to minimally supervise new in-space industries like space habitats, resource mining, and propellant depots.

2) You have a rapidly growing and increasingly capable U.S. commercial space industry that is out-innovating and outcompeting the rest of the world. Today, a new generation of commercial space companies are becoming full partners with NASA on space exploration and aerospace innovation. SpaceX has successfully launched and landed its reusable orbital rocket back on Earth 24 times and re-launched previously flown rocket boosters, including on missions for NASA. Blue Origin has successfully launched and landed its reusable suborbital rocket and crew capsule eight times and is also developing a reusable orbital launch vehicle. Sierra Nevada Corporation is nearly finished with a reusable cargo spaceplane that can land on regular runways, and Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo VSS Unity has successfully performed supersonic, rocket-powered test flights.

3) The American people, media, and investors are increasingly excited about the new revolution in space commerce, from Starman to Mannequin Skywalker to the latest concepts for space stations and resource mining. A new generation of students are building and launching experiments, which is leading to breakthroughs in the classroom and inspirational changes in the halls of government. Just last December, a class of second graders from Cumberland Elementary School in West Lafayette, Indiana, partnered with Blue Origin to fly a lightning bug experiment to space for the cost of a school bake sale. Rather than spending millions of dollars over-designing, building, experimenting, and waiting years for NASA to select and fly the experiment, we now have a U.S. commercial space industry that can enable a class of second graders to fly an experiment to space, at an affordable cost, all within a single school year. Not only did the lightning bug experiment work (lightning bugs do indeed light up in space), but the experiment inspired Indiana’s legislature and governor to make Indiana’s official state insect the lightning bug. This new era is democratizing America’s space enterprise. With NASA as the leading star partnering with so many capable commercial partners, we will expand our leadership in space and give our citizens the space enterprise they’ve always dreamed of.

NASA has a great history, but its future can be even greater because it can travel so far. Fortunately the revolution in NASA’s role in space began decades ago with the first commercial Atlas launches and the founding of SpaceHab as a partner in the space shuttle program, and leapt forward under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama with initiatives like COTS and Commercial Crew. With newly proven tools like competitively awarded funded Space Act Agreements and FAR Part 12 procurements, NASA will enable the transformation of LEO human spaceflight into a commercial marketplace, help create an industrial presence on the moon, and radically accelerate Mars exploration, dramatically increasing the economic and societal return on investment to the American taxpayer.

Most importantly, in 50 years American citizens will look back on today — from a world where the norm is largescale manufacturing of goods and research in space, satellite constellations connecting the world’s citizens to small business in every state, bringing back scare resources to Earth to address national security concerns, and a growing scientific settlement on the moon and Mars — and thank NASA for bringing all of us along with them as America expands into the solar system.

Sincerely your friend and colleague,
Eric W. Stallmer
President
Commercial Spaceflight Federation