Op-ed | The Senator and the Commander
For nearly two decades, I have been working to develop revolutionary spacesuit technology called the BioSuit™ system, which enhances astronaut performance by creating pressure through compression directly on the skin rather than with pressurized gas. If NASA is to truly explore Mars and its mountains, astronauts need flexibility and mobility not offered by the heavy and bulky suits that carried the Apollo astronauts to the moon. We envision astronaut athletes, modular life support systems, advanced cheetah-like robotic scouts, and team members on earth immersed in near real-time scientific data. Our focus is just one piece of a vast, complex, and expensive undertaking to land human boots on Mars and beyond.
A human mission to Mars will require new technology to enable exploration and, undoubtedly, it will require strong leadership. President Biden recently selected Bill Nelson and Pam Melroy as administrator and deputy administrator for NASA. As someone who has studied and practiced leadership and innovation as both an academic and as NASA’s deputy administrator, I know the president has picked an amazing winning team to lead NASA into the future — a U.S. senator and a space shuttle commander; a politically savvy leader and a fearless Air Force test pilot; an author, champion of innovative space legislation, and astronaut flyer and a leader, exceptional team builder, and transformational change agent across government and industry. Nelson and Melroy bring a combination of long-term perspective on the space community as well as a commitment to innovation as Melroy demonstrated at DARPA. This is the right balance to ensure continuity of purpose with new bold achievements.
Leading NASA requires political and policy expertise to gain congressional support for projects that, as visionary as they are, won’t come to fruition for a decade or more. While I served as deputy administrator of NASA under President Obama and Vice President Biden, I worked closely with Sen. Bill Nelson. He co-authored with Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchinson the 2010 NASA Reauthorization Act, which set NASA on its current path of significant investments in the nascent commercial space sector, including SpaceX, through disruptive public-private partnerships. Though it was initially met with skepticism by many lawmakers, Nelson created bipartisan support and through passage of the act secured billions in funding for the commercial space sector and our Mars strategic plan for exploration, which included the human missions to the International Space Station, the moon and Mars over a two decade time horizon. What we see today — American launches on American vehicles from American soil — is the realization of the Obama, Biden and Nelson vision.
Leading missions to other worlds, enabling scientific discoveries, investing in innovation and technology, and realizing breakthroughs in aeronautics requires experience, expertise, and vision to successfully manage thousands of NASA and private sector employees and multibillion dollar projects, especially when the lives of explorers are on the line. There is no one that understands this better than Col. Melroy, a veteran of Operation Just Cause and Operation Desert Shield/Desert Storm, who has logged more than 6,000 hours of flight time in more than 50 different aircraft. She flew three missions in space: as space shuttle pilot during STS-92 in 2000 and STS-112 in 2002, and as space shuttle commander, the second female commander, during STS-120 in 2007. On her three missions, she helped build the International Space Station — she not only knows engineering, but also complex systems, space science and operations. Her leadership at DARPA and in industry uniquely qualify her in program management, taking care of her people, and pushing technology investments. She also understands the rewards as well as the risks and consequences of bold missions.
The sure hand of an astronaut and the skill of a policy expert will maintain the necessary continuity of purpose for NASA and secure funding to get Americans — including the first women and people of color — to the moon and on to Mars. The extraordinary leadership and teamwork of Nelson and Melroy will continue growing the commercial space sector, partnering with industry, developing launch, advanced propulsion, and life support systems, investing in space manufacturing and production, significantly advancing flight and clean transportation, championing bold science missions throughout the solar system to find life — all while creating high-paying jobs, as well as technology spinoffs with significant earth benefits. And while the private sector provides near-Earth operations, NASA can focus on visionary exploration and science, returning samples and searching for life on Mars, engineering a submarine to explore the icy oceans of Europa and other ocean worlds, or even sailing through the atmosphere on other planets to learn about their changing climate.
And then, of course, there is our home planet — Spaceship Earth. In my team’s research, we use satellite data to understand, visualize and predict extreme climate change. I’ve co-founded the nonprofit EarthDNA that uses an AI-driven platform — an Earth Operating System — to turn data into action implementing machine learning, bridging AI and climate models, enhancing industry-academic-government climate solutions, and changing the conversation through our young leaders Ambassadors program. Much of this data comes from our eyes in the sky, NASA satellites continuously monitoring Earth’s oceans, land, ice and air. The Biden-Harris administration is renewing the US focus to take a leading role in climate policy, negotiations, and investments. Both Nelson and Melroy understand the urgency and “all hands on deck” call to ably lead and expand NASA’s climate research, resilience and outreach efforts for the benefits of the U.S. and the world. They have both traveled in space looking down on Earth, and viscerally appreciate the fragility of our home planet and can share their experiences globally.
The Nelson-Melroy team will also significantly enhance diversity, equity and inclusion at NASA, efforts that are not only critical to the agency’s success, but also for our aerospace engineering and scientific community, which remain unmet. Pam knows firsthand what it means to break new ground, being only the third woman pilot in the Air Force’s test pilot school, commanding the Space Shuttle, and being a champion for equity and inclusion. Bill’s voting history is stellar on supporting civil rights legislation as well as STEM education. When I visited his Senate office, it was clear he practiced what he preached — his staff was two thirds female and almost half people of color.
This week, NASA and SpaceX will launch astronauts to the International Space Station, just the third crewed commercial launch in American history. It’s a liftoff partnership that wouldn’t have been possible without the legislation Nelson helped shepherd over a decade ago.
Nelson and Melroy are the leadership team that NASA needs to carry out its future missions and enable humanity’s next giant leap back to the moon and ultimately to the surface of Mars. They are well prepared to lead NASA into the future with industry, academia, other government agencies and international partners. Their unique skill sets, integrity, experience, and compassion — a senator and a commander, will lead NASA into this incredible future and enable all of us to turn our dreams into reality.
Dava Newman is the Apollo Program Professor of Astronautics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Aeronautics and Astronautics, the director of the MIT Media Lab and a Harvard -MIT Health, Sciences, and Technology faculty member. Newman served as NASA deputy administrator from 2015—2017, nominated by President Obama and unanimously confirmed by the U.S. Senate.