The Senate Subcommittee on Science and Space held an April 23 hearing to discuss the challenges and opportunities of human spaceflight. There was bipartisan interest from senators on this issue. “We want to get back to that business,” stated Subcommittee Chairman Bill Nelson (D-FL) referring to human spaceflight. He continued by highlighting that “it pushes the best and brightest to the limit of their creativity and all of us on Earth benefit from it.”
Ranking Member Ted Cruz (R-TX) discussed the need for NASA to continue its leadership in space and how that will require collaboration between the federal government, scientific community, and general public. Cruz wanted to learn more about challenges faced by NASA and about the partnership between the federal government and commercial sector. He asked how the space program “can continue to generate opportunities for commercialization.”
Three witnesses testified. William Gerstenmaier, Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) provided subcommittee members with an overview of commercial contributions in space including an update on SpaceX and assurance that US companies are working to supply the International Space Station. He also stated that the heavy lift launch vehicles are making progress and that the Center for Advancement of Science in Space has a variety of new users working on space-based research. Gerstenmaier also described NASA’s announced strategy to “unite scientific observation, technological developments, and human spaceflight activities into a unified approach.”
Lieutenant General Thomas Stafford, Retired from the Air Force and Retired Astronaut, provided insight into how the NASA Authorization Act of 2010, which mandated the development of the heavy lift Space Launch System and Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle, “has allowed us to envision a robust future for NASA.” He outlined that there are choices in resources, destination, mission plans and the role of the heavy lift system vehicles as he summarized a 1991 American Space Exploration Initiative report chartered by President George H. W. Bush.
Stephen Cook, Director of Space Technologies at Dynetics drew attention to the negative impact of “pitting commercial and government space sectors against each other in an ‘us versus them’ debate.” He emphasized the benefits that result from government-private sector partnerships and stated that the private sector takes the “burden of investment, resultant risk, and subsequent reward” that results from public-private partnerships.
Questions from Cruz include what NASA sees as the benefits and challenges for completing a mission to an asteroid. Gerstenmaier mentioned that this mission would further develop solar electric propulsion and would allow NASA to examine operations in deep space. The challenges for this mission include finding a suitable target and attaching a space craft to it. Cruz also wanted to hear what the witnesses thought the benefit was of a mission to the moon compared to a mission elsewhere. Stafford replied that NASA technology currently under development has the capability to go farther than the moon.
Nelson asked witnesses for further information about future missions to Mars and what will be the opportunities for commercial involvement. Cook mentioned that there could eventually be options for out-posts in space and cargo development. Wealth creation and logistical support were also mentioned as ways that the commercial sector could engage in future missions.
Discussions throughout this hearing were very positive with both sides showing an interest in promoting NASA research in space. The Chairman and Ranking Member seemed eager to learn about the various NASA projects and future areas of research.