NASA’s deputy chief echoes JFK in a pitch for commercial space ventures

Alan Boyle
NASA Deputy Administrator James Morhard, at left, receives congratulations from NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine after a swearing-in ceremony last October. (NASA Photo / Joel Kowsky)

WASHINGTON, D.C. — NASA’s No. 2 official channeled President John F. Kennedy today in a pitch designed to please space industry executives.

“We choose to commercialize low Earth orbit,” Deputy Administrator James Morhard declared here at the Commercial Space Transportation Conference. “We choose to have free space lanes in commerce, just as we have had free sea lanes of commerce on Earth.”

The phrasing echoed Kennedy’s famous 1962 speech that set out the goal of putting Americans on the moon. “We choose to go to the moon,” said the president, who put his goal on a par with crossing the Atlantic and climbing Mount Everest. “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”

The Trump administration has refocused NASA’s space vision on lunar settlement as a warmup for crewed expeditions to Mars. On Thursday, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine is to preside over a meeting with industry leaders to discuss future lunar missions.

Bridenstine couldn’t make it to today’s D.C. session. Instead, he was in California to mark the end of the Opportunity rover’s 15-year mission to Mars. But Morhard addressed NASA’s lunar aspirations in his stead, in Kennedyesque terms.

“Once again, we’ve chosen to go to the moon, and then on to Mars,” he said. “Not because it’s to our advantage, as one country over another. Not because NASA and its commercial partners do what no one else can. We do it because we strive to better humanity. … It is a challenge that we have accepted, and that we will win.”

Morhard’s selection as Bridenstine’s deputy raised questions when it was announced last July, due to his lack of experience in the space business. Instead, the 62-year-old’s resume includes stints as the Senate’s deputy sergeant-at-arms and as a leading staff member for the Senate Appropriations Committee and its subcommittees.

Despite the qualms, Morhard won Senate confirmation and was sworn in four months ago. Today Morhard said working alongside Bridenstine, a former Navy pilot who came to NASA from Congress, has been a “blessing.”

He emphasized the opportunities for commercialization in space. “NASA’s goal is to be one of many customers in a robust commercial marketplace in low Earth orbit,” and eventually to extend that approach to lunar operations as well, Morhard said.

He pointed out that SpaceX and Boeing will soon start sending astronauts to the International Space Station, marking the first time since the shuttle fleet’s retirement in 2011 that Americans have been launched into orbit from U.S. soil on U.S.-made rockets.

Looking further ahead, NASA aims to support the development of commercial landers capable of putting astronauts on the lunar surface. That’s expected to be the focus of Thursday’s meeting at NASA Headquarters.

Morhard said other frontiers for commercial space ventures include off-world tourism, in-space pharmaceutical manufacturing and 3-D printing of human organs.

Asteroid mining even came in for a shout-out — even though the two best-known space mining startups, Planetary Resources and Deep Space Industries, were recently acquired by ventures that have pivoted away from that particular line of business.

Morhard noted that NASA’s Psyche mission to a nickel-iron asteroid may provide access to precious metals not easily found on Earth.

“We don’t know that yet,” he said. “But who positions themselves to do so may be critical to who will dominate this world in the future. Will it be a free people, or those who are not? We in this room will make that determination.”

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