September 30, 2020

VIDEO: Udall Promotes NM Space Economy, Peaceful Use of Space in Senate Hearing with NASA Administrator

NASA leader commits to working with NM space stakeholders, says that peaceful international cooperation—not conflict—is key to unlocking benefits of space economy for US

VIDEO LINK: Udall’s questions begin at 1:09:02 here.

WASHINGTON—At a hearing of the Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation on the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA) progress on major missions, U.S. Senator Tom Udall (D-N.M.) secured commitments from NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine on the agency’s continued collaboration with key stakeholders in New Mexico’s growing space economy, and on U.S. leadership in international cooperation to maintain the peaceful use of outer space. Udall is the author of S.Res.386, a resolution to support implementation of international guidelines for the peaceful use of space.

“Satellite servicing and debris removal will become an increasingly important part of space operations as Low Earth Orbit and other heavily populated orbits become increasingly congested by small satellites,” Udall said. “Last October, I introduced Senate Resolution 386 – a resolution supporting improvements in space situational awareness and advances in technology and calling for international cooperation to address the increasing dangers of space debris. 

“Do you support the kind of improvements to and advancements in situational awareness technology called for in my resolution?” Udall asked.

“Yes sir, without question, the challenge that we have as an agency, as a federal government, is data,” Birdenstine replied. “We need the ability to get as much information on the debris that is in Low Earth Orbit as possible to keep our missions safe. We need new, more, and better technology and data.”

“How important is it to ensure international cooperation on this issue and implement the 21 guidelines for space sustainability agreed to by the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space?” Udall asked. 

“Without international support, we end up not getting the results that we’re going to need,” Bridenstine responded. “Without question, the United States of America is the preeminent space nation, but others are very rapidly developing and deploying space assets and creating debris that need to be dealt with. I am very supportive of international agreements that mitigate the debris and of course, international agreements that allow us to see and respond to the debris as well.”

Udall moved to address NASA’s role in supporting New Mexico’s growing space economy. “New Mexico’s space industry is growing rapidly. Companies such as Virgin Galactic, Spin Launch, and Up Aerospace call New Mexico home. I am glad to hear that NASA is beginning to partner with some of these commercial space flight companies, as well as others.

“Besides using these commercial space entities to eventually take individuals to the International Space Station and conduct other training for NASA personnel, is this an opportunity for NASA to increase other experiments and tests conducted from places like Spaceport America in New Mexico?” Udall asked. “If so, what sort of experiments and testing would NASA conduct?”

“Yes sir, we do these activities through what we call the Flight Opportunities Program, which is resident in the Space Technology Mission Directorate at NASA. That Flight Opportunities Program has already conducted over 700 different experiments and technology demonstrations using commercial suborbital vehicles,” Birdenstine replied.

Birdenstine further explained that the commercial suborbital flights conducted by New Mexico-based space companies is very valuable to NASA’s ability to conduct high-level microgravity experiments while saving taxpayer dollars. “Not having to fly those experiments all the way to the International Space Station is hugely valuable to the taxpayer of the United States of America.”

Birdenstine highlighted the potential for commercial spaceflights to link the expertise of researchers from universities in New Mexico and across the country to further NASA’s mission capabilities. “We now have an opportunity to accept… scientists or researchers that can fly on these commercial vehicles funded by NASA.

“So that’s a huge development that we’ve just put forward,” Birdenstine concluded. “So I really think, Senator Udall, that there is a great future here with commercial suborbital vehicles.”