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NASA’s new strategic plan reveals return to the moon and development of new tech

April 26, 2018
By: Ellen Marrison

The new four-year strategic plan for NASA provides a foundation to return to the moon “for long-term exploration and use” as well as creating a base for “eventual crewed missions to Mars and potentially beyond.”

NASA is restructuring the agency to align with the administration’s focus on space exploration. As part of the restructuring addressed in the plan, the former Space Technology Mission Directorate (STMD) and advanced technology work in the Advanced Exploration Systems program will be merged into a new Exploration Research & Technology organization. Additional restructuring options also are being reviewed, including creating two new exploration-focused mission directorates and eliminating the current Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate (HEOMD) and STMD structure, or an option to create a single “super” exploration-focused mission directorate by pulling together all the exploration-focused areas in the current HEOMD and STMD organizations. A decision on a new model is expected this spring.

While using the International Space Station to evaluate systems and feasibility of future lunar and Martian destinations, the plan sets its focus on enabling the economic development of low-Earth orbit. Partnering with industry to develop platforms and capabilities that the agency and private sector can use after the government ceases its funding of the ISS in 2025 receive mention:

“After 2025, the U.S. will cease directly funding the ISS, but will continue to conduct research, technology development, and other activities in low-Earth orbit in conjunction with our commercial and international partners. NASA will be a reliable customer for commercial goods and services that support and enhance NASA missions and requirements both in low-Earth orbit and in deep space.”

The plan outlines four strategic goals to help achieve its missions of scientific discovery of Earth, other worlds and the cosmos; and missions of development that advance new technologies in aeronautics and space systems:

  • Expand human knowledge through new scientific discoveries;
  • Extend human presence deeper into space and to the moon for sustainable long-term exploration and utilization;
  • Address national challenges and catalyze economic growth, which includes developing and transferring technologies to enable exploration capabilities and transform aviation through revolutionary technology research, development and transfer; and,
  • Optimize capabilities and operations, which includes engaging in partnership strategies.

The previous plan included three goals, one of which was to advance understanding of Earth and develop technologies to improve the quality of life on our home planet. That goal included the objective of meeting the challenge of environmental change. The new plan states that while the agency originally was tied to keeping the nation secure and advancing U.S. leadership in aeronautics, communications satellites and Earth remote sensing, “NASA’s mandate is broader today.” While environmental change challenges are no longer set apart as objectives and understanding of Earth is not a goal in the new strategic plan, it does include gathering climate change data as a challenge the agency is addressing, along with supplying technological solutions for terrestrial problems.

New administrator sworn in

In other NASA developments, James Bridenstine was sworn in this week as NASA’s new administrator. After a six-month process, Bridenstine was confirmed on a party line vote, but is not without critics who voiced concerns that the agency needs a science professional and not a politician. While he served in Congress, Bridenstine introduced the American Space Renaissance Act, which focused on ensuring the country remains a leader in space and changing government processes and leverage innovation coming from the commercial sector to free up resources to focus on other efforts, such as getting Americans to Mars.

nasa, strategic plan