Former NASA Commander Says Space Force 'Incredibly Important'

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Pam Melroy also explained how commercial space flights could pave the way for an entirely new tourism paradigm.

Retired Air Force test pilot and former NASA astronaut Pam Melroy is a veteran of three space shuttle flights—and the second woman to ever command one. 

Drawing from more than 38 days in space performing risky assembly missions to help build the International Space Station, Melroy spoke in Washington Tuesday about the recent but timely creation of the U.S. Space Force, and the challenges public and private entities must address to accelerate the potentially promising future of commercial space flight. 

“I am very worried about conflict in space, but unfortunately, I kind of joke that everything goes from zero to classified in under a second in space—and so there’s a lot of things that are not discussed that are disturbing,” Melroy said at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “I think that there are things that we really do need to be worried about, and so ... having a plan, and especially for me, watching the barriers crumble between civil, military and commercial space in terms of an integrated strategy for our country is incredibly important.”

Melroy also served in the Federal Aviation Administration’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation and as the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s Deputy Director of the Tactical Technology Office. But before all that, she launched her career as a test pilot in the Air Force, a branch of the military that honed in on critical space initiatives for decades before the establishment of the Space Force. Melroy explained that many Air Force insiders rotate between strategic air and space-focused efforts—but she’s also seen how there can be a much higher level of priority placed on the aviation side of initiatives within the branch. 

“So, I think [establishing Space Force is] actually a really important step,” she said.

Speaking just as the inaugural chief of the new branch was being officially sworn in at the White House, Melroy noted that Space Force has been consistently proposed in the space policy community since the 1980s. But she added that people still “don’t fully appreciate” that countries like Russia and China have already organized their own versions of the Space Force, and that the new entity will prove instrumental in addressing burgeoning space conflicts and countries’ increasing abilities to destroy enemy satellites. In many ways, she said she perceives the modern entity as an important new “startup inside government.”

“I view it not as a change of what we are already doing in space militarily, but to concentrate a group of people who are actually technical experts in space and actually give them the corporal mandate to develop doctrine and to understand how the military uses space,” she said. 

In the 2020s, commercial space flight companies like Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin and Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic are working to introduce new opportunities for space tourism and developing rocket-powered vehicles that could soon launch adventurous humans straight to the stars. Elon Musk also unveiled bold aims for his commercial company SpaceX to send its first cargo mission to Mars in 2022, in hopes to pave the way for human presence on the planet by 2024.

“One of the things that I love about Elon Musk is that he is poking a stick at everything, so he is really stirring people up and pushing,” Melroy said. “But it’s hard for me to see how SpaceX could achieve that goal in 2022, particularly without the help of NASA.”

While SpaceX and its contemporaries are making calculated investments that could accelerate planetary colonization in the years to come, Melroy said humans are still significantly limited by technological capabilities. “Mars is staggeringly complicated,” she noted. For instance, the only way to communicate between Earth and Mars is through the deep space network, which NASA owns. Musk would either need to recreate that complex infrastructure or work directly with the space agency. 

“But having said that, what I love is this idea of being aspirational,” Melroy noted. “My experience at DARPA really fired me up about big ideas and how in setting your goal for something that is extremely aspirational, you may not achieve it—but you will get much further down the road than if you set an evolutionary goal.”

The former space commander also noted that there is still an inherent lack of regulations that exist around emerging space technologies and space tourism. For example, FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation (the U.S.’ commercial space regulator, where Melroy spent some of her career) is presently not allowed to regulate the safety of humans in space. That will likely change as space tourism moves from innovators’ dreams realm to reality, she said. 

And as the number of America’s commercial astronauts begins to match the number of government astronauts, Melroy said new opportunities will open up for federally-employed astronauts to push the boundaries of space travel—and possibly even travel for the first time into deep space. She also hopes that the commercial investments across the space realm will pave the way for much more rapid travel here on Earth and beyond. 

“We are going to see people and science and even whole new societies forming on the moon and Mars,” Melroy said. “And it will become as easy to go to space as it is today to fly a plane.”