Modern Space Missions Lead to Standing Joint NASA, DOE Coordinating Group

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Senior Energy officials briefed Nextgov on a range of areas that present potential opportunities for the agencies to advance each other’s missions. 

Following decades of innovation-pushing partnership in space and on Earth, there’s a renewed and deliberately strategic sense of collaboration between NASA and the Energy Department as the former eyes perhaps its most ambitious mission yet: landing humans on Mars.

The agencies recently stood up what Energy’s Undersecretary for Science Paul Dabbar told Nextgov is a joint DOE-NASA coordinating group. Through it, they’ll explore possible opportunities to fuse resources and pave new advancements in the realms of energy and propulsion, supercomputing, data management—and more.

“A lot of the work that we've done for NASA on energy sources, science and coordination and other things have been what I would call ‘one-off project related,’ and so we decided to kind of systematize it,” he explained. 

Dabbar on Monday briefed Nextgov on the new effort and detailed potential opportunities for space-related cooperation between the agencies in the near and distant future, alongside Energy’s Chief Commercialization Officer Conner Prochaska. The two called from Oklahoma, where they’d just landed ahead of participating in a roundtable discussion with NASA’s administrator on similar topics at the University of Tulsa Tuesday.

A Glimpse into the New Coordinating Group

Backed by enthusiasm and support from the White House, Congress and industry, NASA is embarking on a new age of spaceflight. As Dabbar put it, “probably for the first time in most people's lives—since Apollo—it's really a truly exciting time for discovery in space.”

NASA’s engaging the private sector in new ways to deliver its assets to outer space, and tackling a range of other pursuits that will ultimately lead up to its ambitious Artemis missions. Named for Apollo’s twin sister, Artemis will envelop an effort to land the next man and first woman on the moon—and lay a foundation for sustained, longer term presence on the lunar surface to meet its ultimate aim of sending astronauts to Mars. Reflecting on current, significant government and budgetary support across NASA, Energy’s national laboratories and the sciences in general, Dabbar highlighted officials’ recognition that now “we could go do things that had been debated as possibilities.” 

“And that cultural change, that energy change is also a part of the DOE-NASA dialogue,” Dabbar noted. “It's truly exciting to sit down with the [NASA] administrator and teams to say that they're really reaching for things that people hadn't really thought that there would be support for.”

It’s been a long time since the U.S. has had “one solid destination in mind,” Energy’s Prochaska added, emphasizing the need for a “whole of government effort” needed to attack something so ambitious as arriving on Mars. 

After NASA was given the order to get to the red planet, President Trump designated the Energy Department as a member of the National Space Council. Prochaska noted that subsequently, the agency reviewed its own portfolio and pinpointed problem sets NASA would need to address to accomplish that mission.

“And it just made perfect sense to make sure that we could increase access, communication, and interactions with NASA as much as possible to make sure that everybody, the U.S. taxpayer is getting the best bang for their buck with this research and the missions at hand,” he said.

The coordinating group’s first working session was held at Cape Canaveral, Florida, in July, and involved key leadership officials from both federal agencies who were already there for the launch of the Mars-searching Perseverance rover. While there, Dabbar and NASA’s Administrator Jim Bridenstine—who both have roots in Oklahoma—agreed to hold the discussion in Tulsa to publicly spotlight and advance the aims of the interagency group and focus on collaboration.  

As for the timing of the coordinating group’s next meetings, Dabbar noted that officials haven’t landed on exact periodicity but will likely meet quarterly throughout each year. Still, the more focused collaboration could also pave the way to new formal agreements between the agencies.

“We do have standing [memorandums of understanding] for doing things like radioisotope thermal generators that power the probes that are Voyager I and Voyager II. We've been doing that for decades with NASA,” CCO Prochaska said. “But, as we sit here and talk about these new problems and new challenges—and as the senior leadership of NASA and the Department of Energy are talking about what their shared goals are—I could envision that new agreements, new MOUs that are more effective and point directly to those issues that we're trying to tackle would probably come to fruition.”

What Holds Promise for Collaborative Innovation 

As the officials alluded to, the Energy Department has a many decades-long history supporting America’s space agency in its efforts. More recently, it was revealed that NASA’s Mars Perseverance rover would run on an Energy Department-developed nuclear power system. It’s also the first rover in more than 30 years to use domestically-produced plutonium created in Energy’s national labs.

Beyond that, the federal officials also spotlighted a range of areas where there’s potential to share resources and collectively pursue innovation. Both of the agencies’ science missions deploy detectors, for instance—with NASA’s in space and Energy’s also in space, plus on the ground at the South Pole and elsewhere. Dabbar said the two have already begun discussions into how they can collectively “do detections and map the universe, to be direct.” 

Offering another, more specific example, Dabbar noted that both agencies focus on mapping asteroids. Energy is finishing up production of what the undersecretary said “will be the top telescope to map all the asteroids.” If integrated with asteroid-spotting data from NASA’s planetary defense mission, Dabbar said the telescope could “not only map but also be a real time analysis tool as things get detected.”

Considering several other areas of potential, Dabbar added that perhaps the most exciting topic at the nexus of space exploration and Energy-related pursuits in his mind is nuclear propulsion to and from Mars. Through nuclear thermal propulsion, a nuclear reaction providing the propulsion for fuel exiting a spacecraft has the potential to one day offer so much power it could allow humans to get to Mars much faster than currently estimated, Dabbar explained. 

“Not only would it allow us to get to Mars in half the time—so if we could get there in three and a half months, give or take, rather than seven, it's safer for food, safer for radiation damage for the astronauts, it's safer for overall human physiology—but with the same sort of design that only uses up half of the advantage, the other half of the advantage could be is that we could go to and from Mars on the same fuel load. And that is a dramatic thing,” he said.

Dabbar pointed out one of the greatest challenges presented in America’s aim to get to Mars is that once there, humans need a way to refuel their spacecraft to return to Earth. Having a single rocket that could get to Mars in half the time, do the mission and then get back safely on the exact same load of fuel through nuclear propulsion would be “a dramatic change of what could happen for us in terms of being able to manage getting humans to and from Mars,” he noted. 

The coordinating group offers a mechanism to explore those potentially revolutionary opportunities.

“So an immediate takeaway from what we're doing right now is, ‘OK, we all agree that's theoretically possible and very exciting, how do we actually start creating a project to start doing design to start doing testing?” Dabbar said.

Though the chat with Nextgov honed in on agency crossover in efforts around Mars and the Moon, Dabbar emphasized that “the depth of the interaction [between the agencies] is significantly more than that.” He and Prochaska went on to mention a few other areas including mapping the universe, exploring radiation damage to humans, supercomputing and modeling—and more. 

“There's a great depth associated with what's going on,” Dabbar said.

And Prochaska, who also serves as director of Energy’s Office of Technology Transitions, further added that there is an entire space economy, blossoming out of the work. 

“All of this plays a part in making sure that we can take care of that growing economy, as well and keep the U.S. in the forefront,” he said.

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