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Can NASA reach the moon safely by 2024?
New space accelerator seeks to wire startups to Pentagon. Skepticism that 2024 moon goal can be met safely, but experts say it’s too soon to judge.
BUILDING BRIDGES BETWEEN SPACE STARTUPS AND DoD. The Techstars Starburst Space Accelerator was founded to help startups grow, but could have the second-order effect of building a closer relationship between entrepreneurs and the Defense Department, its head, Matt Kozlov, tells POLITICO. Air Force officials will meet with companies during the three-month program to see if their technology might be a good fit and assuage fears about working with the Pentagon.
“All too often, entrepreneurs opt out of working with the DOD because the perception is that [there are] long sales cycles, a lot of bureaucracy, [the company is] probably going to lose the contract to a prime anyway. Why bother?” Kozlov said. “Why not just go sell that new technology to Ford?”
The accelerator also wants to mentor non-space companies starting in July that are working on technologies that could apply to space missions, including advanced batteries, artificial intelligence, and mining techniques. “Mining often requires an autonomous robotics platform that has to navigate difficult terrain and harsh environments. That sounds kind of familiar,” Kozlov said, referencing NASA’s work to build rovers that can survive on Mars.
Kozlov also talked about why building a solid team will be the most important part of a startup's application. Read our full Q&A here.
CAN NASA SAFELY GET BACK TO THE MOON IN 2024? With NASA poised to release its amended budget request to return humans to the moon in 2024, some are worried the space agency will have to scrimp on safety for the sake of speed. One self-described NASA engineer working on the Orion program says she is a veteran of the Space Shuttle program raised amid the specter of the Columbia disaster. “The [Columbia Accident Investigation Board] lays out EVERYTHING that went wrong prior to Challenger and Columbia and we are following that exact same path now,” she wrote on Twitter. "You’re not going to see my signature approving any of this. I’m not going to work on this program. I’ll ... leave the agency if I have to."
Others cautioned that without a plan it’s too early to be worried that accelerating the moon landing by four years will pose unacceptable dangers. “Concluding in advance that they’re going to have to cut corners and sacrifice safety seems to me to be overly pessimistic and not very professional to make technical judgements in advance of the information you need to make them,” John Logsdon, the founder of George Washington University’s Space Policy Institute who also served on the Columbia Accident Investigation Board, tells us.
But a lot of people will be looking over NASA’s shoulder, Logsdon added. “With the heritage of shuttle accidents in the past and this accelerated schedule, there’s going to be a great deal of concern over whether inappropriate risks are going to be taken," he said. "So I think the oversight of this which was missing in both Challenger and Columbia will be omnipresent,”
It may never happen anyway, cautioned G. Scott Hubbard, an adjunct professor at Stanford University who also served on the Columbia Accident Investigation Board. Among the roadblocks: insufficient funding and difficulty convincing Congress the 2024 deadline makes sense. Not to mention similar declarations by past presidents went nowhere and there is little evidence the Trump administration is any better at pushing through political priorities. “They haven’t been successful in making deals even when they controlled the White House and both houses of Congress. They couldn’t get their own border wall built,” he said.
TOP DOC: 2033 Mars goal not possible. The soonest the nation could send humans to Mars is 2037, according to a report released Thursday by the Institute for Defense Analyses' Science and Technology Policy Institute, a federally funded research and development center. Even that timeline would require accepting large risks in cost, schedule, and technology development. “Even without budget constraints, a Mars 2033 orbital mission cannot be realistically scheduled under NASA’s current and notional plans,” the report says.
Mars booster "disappointed" by the dour assumptions. The 2033 goal has key support on Capitol Hill, where Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-Colo.) is known for bringing his Mars 2033 bumper sticker to hearings. Perlmutter told POLITICO he's "disappointed" by the constraints assumed in the report, including that NASA's budgets will remain flat. "What it does confirm is NASA’s current exploration architectures won’t get the job done," he told us. "The report makes clear a 2033 human mission to Mars requires additional resources and acceleration of the development of key technologies. That is why I was pleased Administrator [Jim] Bridenstine recently testified about NASA’s desire to get our astronauts to Mars by 2033. I plan to continue working with NASA and my colleagues in Congress to achieve this goal.”
ANOTHER SPACE FORCE SKEPTIC. Count the Brookings Institution's Michael O’Hanlon, a leading defense analyst, among those who believe a separate space branch is a bad idea in part because the government has a bad track record of establishing new organizations. “After 9/11, we similarly agreed to create a Department of Homeland Security. Nearly two decades later, the verdict is still out about the wisdom of that move,” he writes in a Washington Post op-ed published Wednesday. He believes the better solution is for the Air Force to prioritize and promote the space mission, which Space Force proponents contend gets short shrift. “While the Air Force does tend to be run by fighter pilots who often emphasize jet technology, it also has an institutional proclivity to play down the importance of bomber forces, unmanned systems and other technologies,” O'Hanlon writes. “But we cannot create a new service for each partially neglected area of the armed forces.”
QUOTE OF THE DAY: “I would give my life to fly in space. It's hard for me to talk about it but I would. I would then, and I will now.” — Geraldyn “Jerrie” M. Cobb, one of the “Mercury 13,” a group of 13 women who passed the preliminary screening process to fly to space in the 1960s. Her family announced this week that she died last month at 88 years old.Content originally published by Politico on April 19, 2019.