Chief of Space Operations Gen. John Raymond (top left) and NASA Administration Jim Bridenstine (bottom) participate in a virtual forum Sept. 22, 2020, hosted by retired Lt. Gen. Dave Deptula, of the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies. Credit: Mitchell Institute

WASHINGTON — NASA and the U.S. Space Force have formally agreed to work together in areas like space policy, research, technology and the protection of the planet from hazardous objects such as asteroids.

Administrator Jim Bridenstine and Chief of Space Operations Gen. John “Jay” Raymond discussed the new memorandum of understanding Sept. 22 in a live virtual event hosted by the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies.

The memorandum replaces an agreement signed 14 years ago between NASA and the U.S. Air Force Space Command, which was disestablished when the Space Force was created Dec. 20, 2019.

“Space Force looks forward to future collaboration as NASA pushes farther into the universe for the benefit of all,” said Raymond. The Space Force will ensure “freedom of action in space” so NASA can safely return to the moon and achieve human exploration of Mars.

NASA is a civilian agency and has no role in military operations. NASA would turn to the Space Force, for example, if its assets in orbit came under hostile attack. “The space domain is becoming more challenging and those challenges affect NASA just like they affect the commercial operators,” said Bridenstine. “And that’s really where we rely on the Space Force to be supportive of what we’re trying to achieve.”

Bridenstine noted that countries are acquiring lasers and other technologies to jam satellites, as well as cyber weapons to hack into space systems. “These are the kinds of things that affect pretty much everybody in the space domain,” he said.

When a spacecraft is attacked, identifying the perpetrator is “critically important and it’s very difficult when it comes to space,” Bridenstine said. NASA and the Space Force will share data to help address these issues, he added. “When something strange happens to NASA, we’re going to be sharing that data, or we’re going to be sharing it quickly.”

NASA by law cannot engage directly with China, a rising space power. Given the challenges that exist in space, he said, “it is necessary to have security. And that’s why it is so important for NASA to work side by side with the Space Force.”

NASA a diplomatic force

Bridenstine in opening comments and during the question-and-answer portion of the Mitchell Institute event was emphatic about NASA’s role as an agent of diplomacy.

“What I hope people take away from this discussion today is that, yes, we do science exploration and discovery, we develop outer space, but I really hope people take away that we are an instrument of national power,” Bridenstine said.

He suggested that NASA’s huge international standing could be used as leverage to bring about new agreements to ensure the peaceful use of space.

As NASA prepares to go to the moon and encourages the private sector to mine resources there, “we want to see behaviors improved in space,” said Bridenstine.

“NASA plays an important role in national security,” he said. “We don’t do defense, we don’t fight and win wars, that is not our role.”

But NASA is a major piece of the larger U.S. national power, he said. “The national security community talks about diplomatic power, information power, military power, economic power. NASA plays on the diplomatic side in a very robust way.”

Bridenstine cited several examples of how NASA brings countries together:

  • Currently 15 countries are involved in the operation of the International Space Station.
  • Astronauts from 19 countries have served on the International Space Station.
  • Experiments from more than a hundred countries have deployed to the International Space Station.

“So this is really a tool of diplomacy for the nation,” said Bridenstine. “It is soft power.”

“And as we go to from low Earth orbit to the moon under the Artemis program, we’re putting together a coalition of nations that are going to go sustainably to the moon,” he said. “The Artemis program is the envy of many nations around the world.”

NASA has invited countries to join the Artemis program. “We asked who wants to be with us when we go to the moon? We had 26 nations show up. Some of them didn’t even have space agencies, but they want to be with us on the moon,” Bridenstine said. “This is a tremendously valuable diplomatic tool.”

Given the level of interest and enthusiasm, he said. “we decided that we could use this as a tool to compel behaviors in space. If you want to be with us when we go to the moon, if you want to be with us on the Artemis program, we want you with us, but we also need you to agree to basic norms of behavior.”

Those basic norms of behavior, said Bridenstine, “are ultimately what will preserve space for humanity to continue doing the exploration and development, and the building of commercial capabilities.”

Sandra Erwin writes about military space programs, policy, technology and the industry that supports this sector. She has covered the military, the Pentagon, Congress and the defense industry for nearly two decades as editor of NDIA’s National Defense...