Pam Melroy, nominee to be NASA deputy administrator, testifies at her May 20 Senate confirmation hearing, after being introduced by another former astronaut, Sen. Mark Kelly (D-Ariz.) Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

WASHINGTON — The former astronaut tapped by the White House to serve as NASA deputy administrator told senators she supported extending the International Space Station and continuing limitations on the agency’s ability to cooperate with China.

Pam Melroy, nominated by the Biden administration April 16 to be deputy administrator, enjoyed strong support at a May 20 confirmation hearing by the Senate Commerce Committee that featured two other nominees for positions at other agencies.

“It’s hard to imagine a more qualified person for this role,” the committee’s chairwoman, Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), said of Melroy in her opening remarks, discussing Melroy’s “impressive background” as an Air Force pilot and astronaut who later held positions at the FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation and at DARPA.

Sen. Mark Kelly (D-Ariz.), also a former astronaut, formally introduced Melroy at the hearing and praised his former colleague. “Pam has a range of operational and program management that makes her an outstanding choice for this job,” he said. “She was a terrific boss and a great program manager.”

In her opening remarks, Melroy said she would work closely with Administrator Bill Nelson in running the agency. “NASA’s incredible workforce is ready to tackle our nation’s most pressing challenges: economic competitiveness, climate change and maintaining American superiority and leadership in science and technology,” she said. “If confirmed, I’m ready to help Administrator Nelson lead and manage NASA on day one.”

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) was one of the few senators who asked Melroy questions in the hearing. He noted that he’s sought a formal extension of the International Space Station to as late as 2030, something that in the past he had worked closely on with Nelson when he was in the Senate.

“Yes, I can say that I support the extension of ISS,” she said. “We have a lot more work to do in microgravity science. As long as it is safe and feasible to do so, we will continue to utilize the ISS.”

Melroy said later it would be a “serious outcome” for the future of the ISS if Russia pulled out of the partnership, as some Russian officials suggested they would do as soon as the mid-2020s. “If I am confirmed, I look forward to actually having a conversation with Roscosmos and find out what they really think, because we need to be harmonizing timing” for the station’s future and development of any successors.

Cruz also raised the specter of a space race with China and current limitations on NASA’s ability to cooperate with China thanks to provisions in federal law known as the Wolf Amendment. “Do you think the guardrails of the Wolf Amendment are adequate to protect U.S. space technology and our global competitive advantage in space?” Cruz asked.

“You are right to be concerned,” Melroy responded, citing the recent Mars landing that Nelson mentioned the day before in a House appropriations hearing. “I support the Wolf Amendment, as it’s called. It’s the law. NASA will continue to follow the law.”

She added, though, that there are cases where NASA needs to communicate with China. “We have to operate together in the space domain. There are times where it’s in the best interest of the United States to talk to China,” she said, but didn’t offer examples of such cases.

Cantwell brought up “resiliency and redundancy in system operations,” a subtle reference to her past concerns about the lack of redundancy in NASA’s Artemis program when the agency selected a single company, SpaceX, for a lunar lander development contract last month.

Melroy called the overall Artemis program a “systems engineering problem” that requires “multiple backups,” but didn’t comment directly on HLS or other specific elements of Artemis.

Another witness at the confirmation hearing was Rick Spinrad, the White House’s nominee to be NOAA administrator. Spinrad, nominated April 22, is a professor at Oregon State University who previously was NOAA chief scientist and head of its Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research.

“If confirmed, I would come into the position of administrator with a broad and deep knowledge of the inner workings of the agency, and I believe I’m well-equipped to handle the challenges and support the administration’s vision for the future,” he said in his opening statement.

While more senators asked questions of Spinrad, those topics did not include the agency’s weather satellite programs. “I look forward to working with agencies like NASA for development of new remote sensing capabilities,” he said.

Even the hearing’s third witness got pulled into space issues. Carlos Monje Jr., nominee to be undersecretary of transportation for policy, largely dealt with questions on roads, railways and other conventional modes of transportation. However, Sen. Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.) asked him about FAA policies that prevent commercial spaceports from accessing matching funds available for airport projects.

“I’d love to work with you on that,” Monje said, describing the FAA’s dual mandate to both regulate and promote the commercial space transportation industry.

“I’m not hearing yes,” Luján responded. “I hope the answer will be yes as we get a chance to move forward.”

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...