NASA’s acting chief on life under Trump and working with SpaceX

28 Jun 2017

NASA logo outside the Kennedy Space Center. Image: Tony Craddock/Shutterstock

NASA’s acting chief, Robert M Lightfoot Jnr, was in Dublin recently to talk about getting our ass to Mars and what SpaceX and others bring to the table.

While the politics of Washington, DC appear to be in turmoil since the inauguration of Donald Trump as US president in January, NASA’s acting administrator, Robert M Lightfoot Jnr, claims it has been business as usual since he took the reins in the same month.

Replacing Charles Bolden, Lightfoot continues to fill in for the role that is directly appointed by the president himself. So far, no one has been selected to take the position full-time.

Lightfoot is more than happy to stay in the top spot – for the time being – at the space agency, admitting that “it’s the best job in the world”.

He was speaking with not long after he touched down in Dublin for a whirlwind tour, which included a public talk at the Science Gallery in Dublin on NASA’s activities, and a special visit to University College Dublin to meet the team building Ireland’s very first satellite, EIRSAT-1.

Of course, when it comes to organisations such as NASA, business as usual is anything but usual. A number of projects are already in place for the coming decades, including – but not limited to – landing humans on Mars, orbiting an asteroid using a spacecraft, and flying another one to ‘touch the sun’.

Trump ‘visionary’ about Mars mission

That being said, Lightfoot’s tenure as NASA’s acting chief has coincided with Trump’s proposed NASA funding, which would cut just over $500m from its budget, or approximately 3pc of its total.

Despite some consternation from those within education on the effect on some aspects of NASA’s remit, Lightfoot said that his dealings so far with Trump have been positive, and that he and his administration have a keen interest in funding the many missions ahead.

“[President Trump] is very interested in what we’re doing and appears to be very visionary for the big things that we can do and to show what we can do as a country, but also globally in space exploration,” he said.

“He and the vice-president have been very engaged in what we’ve been up to and that’s an exciting thing.”

This is especially true of NASA’s future crewed mission to Mars – sometime in the 2030s – with $19.5bn of NASA’s budget allocated to getting humans to the Red Planet, specifically towards the building of NASA’s Space Launch System rocket and Orion capsule.

“What we’re seeing from the administration is a term I use called ‘consistency of purpose’. They like the plan we’re on, they like what we’re trying to do, and they want to be part of it and help us get there,” he added.

Private companies doing the heavy lifting

However, the world in which NASA has inhabited for more than half a century has been turned upside down in a matter of just a few years, with the rise of the private space industry sector.

While SpaceX remains the poster child of much of this activity – with its recent reveals of reusable rockets and its own plans to build colonies on Mars – a number of other parties are now in the mix, including Boeing and Jeff Bezos-owned Blue Origin, which are all conducting or planning missions in near-Earth orbit.

There are even companies such as Planetary Resources that have ambitious plans to send spacecraft to asteroids and mine its contents, with a potential value of trillions of dollars.

It is a bold new world for what was once a nation-led enterprise. For Lightfoot, these companies are not so much a challenge to their authority, but rather, the boost that NASA and other national agencies need to push us further into space.

Already, SpaceX and Boeing have agreed to provide NASA with the rockets and spacecraft capable of supplying the International Space Station (ISS) faster and, in some cases, cheaper than NASA doing it itself.

“For us, it’s awesome,” he said. “It’s what we should be doing. We should be enabling that industry to take over and let us focus on the things that are further out [in space]. That’s what we’re seeing happening.”

NASA certainly has the backing in this regard, with former US president Barack Obama previously signing the Space Resource Exploration and Utilisation Act of 2015, which basically gave Planetary Resources and its ilk free reign over what they find in space.

This was around the same time that the Senate also passed the US Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act, which would prevent the government from regulating private space companies for at least the next eight years.

Future propulsion

One area I was curious to hear Lightfoot’s thoughts on is propulsion, something he is quite familiar with, having previously acted as chief of propulsion test operations and the head of its propulsion test centre earlier in his career.

Despite massive advancements in technology in space, the way our spacecraft propel themselves out of Earth’s orbit and into space seems to have changed very little, if at all.

That isn’t to say that there have been no proposals or technology tested in the 60 or so years of NASA’s existence – for example, Prof Freeman Dyson proposed interstellar spacecraft powered by nuclear explosions.

A concept image of Prof Freeman Dyson’s Project Orion, which used nuclear explosions as a method of propulsion. Image: NASA

There have also been recent developments within a technology called the Em Drive, a theoretical propulsion system that uses electromagnetism to propel itself forward in a vacuum.

Lightfoot, however, was not of the (more negative) opinion that we are still reliant on old propulsion science, rather that other technologies are now starting to show real opportunities.

“If you look at what we’ve done for solar electric propulsion over the last five years, the propulsion part itself hasn’t been a game-changer, but the real game-changer has been efficiency in the solar arrays,” he explained.

“These solar arrays are able to give us efficiencies that make things like solar electric propulsion a more stable platform, and is now baselined into our planning when it wasn’t before.”

Robots won’t be the only future explorers

He does add that these advanced propulsion systems are definitely of interest to NASA, given that they want to get humans back and forth to Mars as fast as possible, in order to protect them from extended exposure to solar radiation.

This is also close to the minds of NASA’s top engineers when it comes to developing the latest fleet of robots.

Right now, the robot rover known as Curiosity is roaming the surface of Mars to help us find out more about the Red Planet, both for scientific reasons and to suss out whether or not humans will be able to live there in some capacity.

Elsewhere, robots such as Dextre from the Canadian Space Agency are aboard the ISS, repairing essential parts while the astronauts get some essential sleep.

Will robots be the real explorers of the future, rather than humans?

“I see [robots travelling on other planets] as an ‘and’, not an ‘or’,” Lightfoot said.

“If you look at Mars today, we have rovers there and they’re my scouts telling me what’s going on, but the communication back and forth is pretty slow. If that’s a human, they’re making those decisions in real time, so we believe it’s a good mix as we’re still the best computers in the world, and that’s the advantage we have going forward.”

Some of the next generation of human explorers were recently selected by NASA, welcoming 12 new astronauts, whittled down from a staggering 18,000 applicants.

Split evenly in terms of gender and from diverse backgrounds, Lightfoot is in agreement that the NASA recruitment policy that brought in astronauts such as Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin is not compatible with today’s requirements.

“If you go back to the 1960s, it was military test pilots,” he said. “Now, when we’re bringing astronauts in, we’re looking ahead to what our missions are and who can bring expertise to that role, so you see a good mix of scientists, pilots, doctors and engineers.

“I would call it diversity in a different kind of way.”

NASA logo outside the Kennedy Space Center. Image: Tony Craddock/Shutterstock

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic