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Space Policy Pod Interview with former NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe

Former NASA administrator and professor at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs
By Debra Werner

Companies are taking over jobs traditionally performed by NASA. What role does that leave for NASA? Who will ensure expanding commercial space activity doesn’t result in collisions?

Sean O’Keefe, former NASA administrator and professor at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, shared his thoughts with Steve Sidorek, AIAA public policy director; Christian Zur, U.S. Chamber of Commerce executive director procurement and space industry council; and Scott Kordella, MITRE space systems senior advisor, during the 24 May episode of the Space Policy Pod, a podcast sponsored by AIAA, MITRE, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Read the top six takeaways, and click the button below to listen to the entire conversation.

Key Takeaways

Commercial space activity liberates NASA.
When companies take over jobs like transporting cargo and crews to the International Space Station, NASA is free to pursue deep space exploration and other bold initiatives. Commercial enterprises are good at repetitive operations and low-cost production. NASA’s job is to invent the technology to “accomplish the next aspirational goal that’s just outside our reach,” O’Keefe said.

Stop debating space traffic management authority.
Since nobody has authority to direct space traffic, the United States needs to establish policies and procedures to reduce the risk of collisions. Among U.S. agencies the Commerce Department’s Office of Space Commerce is the most logical choice to lead the effort, says O’Keefe, who served on the National Academy of Public Administration panel that considered the matter.

The clock is ticking.
Space activity is projected to quadruple in the next 36 months. If we don’t get ahead of this surge in commercial activity with improved space traffic coordination, collisions will occur on a regular basis, O’Keefe says.

Traveling to deep space? Start at the moon.
With one-sixth Earth’s gravity, the moon would make a great starting point for deep space missions. Once people establish infrastructure on the moon with the help of 3D printers, they can reach other destinations “with a lot less pain, effort, and energy,” O’Keefe says. “This suddenly becomes a real door opener to the rest of the solar system in a way that we’ve never envisioned before.”

Space cooperation with China: a missed opportunity.
Even at the height of the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union worked together in space. In the last decade, the United States missed an opportunity to improve relations with China through collaborating on the International Space Station and other space-related projects. Between the United States and China, “it has not gotten so polarized that we can’t even discuss things, but it’s getting close,” O’Keefe says.

Beware: normalization of deviance.
When something happens regularly, human beings stop worrying, even if they know it’s not right. O’Keefe learned that lesson from the tragic 2003 Space Shuttle Columbia disaster. NASA mission controllers saw insulation break off Space Shuttle external fuel tanks during multiple flights without consequences, which lulled them into a false sense of security. “The loss of seven remarkable people who were on that crew is not something I forget about ever,” O’Keefe says.

Learn more about O’Keefe’s views on NASA and commercial space activity by clicking the button below.

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