An open letter to NASA’s administrator: Let’s beckon the future together

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

Dear Administrator Bridenstine,

On behalf of the 65 industry members and Board of Directors of the Coalition for Deep Space Exploration, I would like to extend our congratulations at the start of your tenure as NASA administrator. The NASA exploration and science programs our members support contribute to the economy in all 50 states — leading to manufacturing, engineering and testing in communities across the country that otherwise might not have the opportunity to contribute to the space program. Many of our members are small suppliers to those programs. Others are startups eager to leverage NASA’s programs and achievements to develop an off-world economy. From the groundbreaking science, private development, and exploration research going on at the International Space Station (ISS) — our steppingstone to deep space — all the way to Mars, we are with you and the agency you lead.

NASA will soon launch Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion on Exploration Mission-1 and take humans farther into space than ever before on Exploration Mission-2, begin building the Gateway in lunar orbit, restore U.S. crew transportation to the ISS, launch the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) and Mars robotic missions, and return robotic landers to the surface of the moon for the first time in nearly 50 years. Any one of these milestones could define an administrator’s term, but you will lead NASA through an unprecedented era in which both the agency, policymakers and the public will be challenged to accept new risks and push the envelope of daring and achievement. American global leadership in space has been at the pinnacle of U.S. innovation, technological advancement, scientific achievement, and peaceful international collaboration since NASA was established 60 years ago. Under your leadership, NASA can both safeguard this legacy and extend its benefits to future generations, driving revitalization of the national industrial workforce, creating jobs, and inspiring students to pursue careers in science, mathematics, engineering and technology (STEM).

The path forward for the human exploration of deep space using NASA’s new Orion crewed spacecraft and the super heavy SLS rocket has strong bipartisan support. SLS is tremendously flexible, adaptable, and powerful. It will carry three times more than the space shuttle and its amazing speed will cut years off of planetary science missions. Orion has bragging rights as well — it is the only spacecraft capable of protecting and sustaining humans for thousand-day exploration missions in the harsh environment of deep space and returning them safely to the Earth. Together SLS and Orion will be the only human-rated system in the world designed from the ground up to provide crewmembers with safe access to and return from deep space.

As SLS and Orion become operational, they will lay the groundwork for a deep space infrastructure. The lunar Gateway that will be built using these systems reaffirms our commitment to deep space and to new capabilities and partnerships. Scientists will make discoveries that wouldn’t be possible without laboratories and equipment located in deep space. Opportunities will arise for industry to participate in myriad ways— launching cargo, extracting resources, pushing the state of the art in manufacturing—even as they explore when and where viable business cases may be realized in the vast ocean of space. International partners will strengthen their ties with the United States as we increase the cadence of missions to the moon while planning for Mars. The benefits of this collaboration remain an indispensable tool for “soft power” and security in today’s world. NASA’s leadership is crucial to ensure that American values of democratic participation, peaceful collaboration, and freedom accompany humanity into deep space.

As you know there is strong bipartisan support of NASA’s space science portfolio. NASA is managing an integrated program enabling great science, including robotic planetary missions, heliophysics, Earth observation, astrophysics and cosmology. Leveraging wise investments in technology, these science programs advance national science and exploration goals and safeguard and improve life here on Earth. NASA’s Lunar Discovery and Exploration program will use partnerships and innovative approaches to achieve both science and exploration goals, supporting Space Policy Directive-1. NASA is also engaged in planning a potential Mars Sample Return mission — the highest priority mission in the Planetary Decadal. Together these programs and many others push the boundaries of knowledge and advance our understanding of the universe and our place in it.

NASA must lead in expanding the frontier beyond Earth for our nation, our international partners, science, and commerce. Your leadership in this endeavor is crucial — so I leave you with seven key recommendations in hopes they may be helpful.

1. Support policy alignment. Maintain close alignment between the administration and Congress on space policy, priorities and funding levels, building on the bipartisan consensus reflected in the 2017 NASA Authorization Act and in the FY 2018 Omnibus. Given your service in Congress, you have the expertise to strengthen this relationship to ensure constancy of purpose and stability for NASA.

2. Ensure dependable and safe return to deep space. Ensure robust and dependable U.S. access to deep space, including the uncrewed test flight of the SLS rocket and the Orion spacecraft (Exploration Mission-1) and the crewed test flight (Exploration Mission-2) that will enable American astronauts to lead the way back into deep space.

3. Advance science. Advance U.S. leadership and achievement in space science, supporting missions such as Mars InSight, Juno, OSIRIS-Rex, the Parker Solar Probe, JWST and funding for upcoming Mars and Europa planetary missions and for WFIRST, together with ongoing investment in missions across NASA’s science portfolio.

4. Enable partnerships. Fully enable and encourage partnerships with the private sector and with other governments, to develop new technologies and capabilities that directly support science, exploration, and national security needs, and to promote the growth of private industry capabilities and initiatives.

5. Fully utilize the ISS. Ensure the fullest possible use of the ISS as a technology test bed, a means for pursuing basic and exploration science and systems development, and as a launch pad for private interests. ISS is the cornerstone of NASA’s comprehensive plan for deep space exploration.

6. Assure safe launch to and return from low Earth orbit. Focus new transportation services on first supporting NASA’s lowEarth orbit activities and missions without sacrificing safety and mission assurance, ensuring that American astronauts are once again able to launch from American soil to the ISS.

7. Promote institutional effectiveness. Strengthen NASA’s effectiveness by streamlining its institutional footprint and procurement practices, driving management best practices, and ensuring that NASA has a workforce able to carry the agency into the future.

We are excited about NASA’s human exploration and science commitments and aspirations. Your leadership at this time will be critical to the success of these missions and to the continued development of private interests in space. We stand ready to support you and your tenure at NASA and look forward to continued advancements in American leadership in space as we beckon the future together.

Sincerely,
Mary Lynne Dittmar, Ph.D.
President & CEO
Coalition for Deep Space Exploration