Status Report

Exit Memo: Office of Science and Technology Policy (NASA Excerpts)

By SpaceRef Editor
January 5, 2017
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Exit Memo: Office of Science and Technology Policy (NASA Excerpts)

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At the beginning of his Administration, President Obama set out a new vision for space exploration. In 2010, the Administration restructured the U.S. civil space program to look forward to bold new goals; to collaborate with, rather than compete with, American entrepreneurs; and to broaden participation and take advantage of new technologies being created at NASA and in America’s laboratories. These policies have fostered a burgeoning commercial-space sector that is creating new jobs and attracting venture capital. Looking ahead, frontiers in space exploration and space science include: 

Supporting our Journey to Mars and a robust U.S. commercial-space market. In April 2010, President Obama challenged the country to send American astronauts on a Journey to Mars in the 2030s. Continued development of advanced space technologies—including better life-support systems and efficient solar-powered electric propulsion systems—will be crucial to achieving President Obama’s vision for space exploration. NASA already has started collaborating with industry to build the space modules or “habitats” in which U.S. astronauts will live and travel to Mars and other deep-space destinations. And in the coming years, the work NASA will do—in collaboration with private and international partners—to develop these deep-space habitats will help reduce the barriers to private companies that envision building their own space stations in Earth orbit or beyond. NASA will soon provide companies the opportunity to add their own modules and other capabilities to the International Space Station. As NASA shifts the focus of its human exploration program to deep space, America’s businesses will take a larger role in supporting space activities in Earth orbit.

Driving advancements in space science. OSTP works with NASA, the National Science Foundation (NSF), and the Department of Energy (DOE) to ensure that Federally funded space-science activities comprise a robust portfolio of space-based missions, ground-based facilities, and research funding for astronomy, planetary science, and heliophysics. The Kepler Space Observatory, which was launched in March 2009, has discovered more than 2,330 extrasolar planets and more than 2,400 additional planet candidates to-date. Curiosity, the Mars Science Laboratory, has been exploring Gale Crater on Mars since it landed in 2011, discovering evidence of an ancient streambed, organic carbon in powdered rock samples, and methane in the Martian atmosphere. Construction of the Atacama Large Millimeter Array (ALMA)—funded by the United States through NSF with other international partners—was completed in 2011 with full science observations beginning in 2013. In July 2015, the New Horizons spacecraft flew by Pluto obtaining the first up-close images of the dwarf planet, and a year later, Juno arrived at Jupiter to begin collecting scientific data to understand the planet’s structure and formation. Looking ahead, progress on the James Webb Space Telescope—designed to be the premier space-based observatory of the next decade, serving thousands of astronomers worldwide—is on track and on budget to meet a 2018 launch date. NSF and DOE, in collaboration with other partners, are supporting the development of the ground-based Large Synoptic Survey Telescope, which expects to see first light in 2019.  

Enhancing prediction of and preparedness for space hazards. OSTP and Federal agencies are identifying actions to extend and enhance prediction and preparedness for potentially hazardous near-Earth objects (NEOs) and define an approach for establishing reference NEO Earth-impact missions that can help the United States and its international partners detect, track, and respond to the threat of collision by a NEO. OSTP also worked with NASA to develop NASA’s Asteroid Grand Challenge, an effort focused on finding all asteroid threats to human populations and knowing what to do about them. NASA’s Asteroid Redirect Mission will, among other benefits, be used to demonstrate a promising asteroid-deflection technique called a gravity tractor. Also, in an effort to better plan for space weather hazards, OSTP led the development of the October 2015 National Space Weather Strategy and National Action Plan, and subsequently, President Obama signed an Executive Order in October 2016 to minimize the harm that space-weather events can cause across our Nation, save lives, and enhance national security. The called-for actions include identifying mitigation technologies, creating nationwide response and recovery plans and procedures, and improving prediction of space-weather events and their effects.

Harnessing the small satellite revolution. A critical area for space-technology development is advancing the capability of small satellites (“smallsats”) and constellations of smallsats to support important commercial, civilian, and national-security applications. Potential applications include capturing continuously updated imagery of the entire planet and providing high-speed Internet connectivity to remote rural communities. Traditional large satellites typically cost hundreds of millions of dollars per satellite and often take years to build and launch. Smallsats sometimes can be delivered at a fraction of the cost and time of legacy satellite systems. Scientists and engineers can quickly test smallsat systems on orbit, allowing them to shorten the innovation cycle to devise new, better systems. The next Administration should consider working with OSTP, NASA, the Department of Defense, the Department of Commerce, and other Federal agencies to foster innovation in the development and use of smallsats. 

SpaceRef staff editor.