Obama Administration Assesses Its Space Achievements in "Exit Memos"

Obama Administration Assesses Its Space Achievements in "Exit Memos"

President Obama directed all of his Cabinet-level appointees to prepare “exit memos” on progress made during his Administration and what needs to come next.   NASA is not a cabinet-level agency so did not have a chance to weigh in, but the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) did, listing a number of accomplishments at NASA and other government science and technology organizations.  The Secretary of Defense and Secretary of Commerce (NOAA’s parent) also included space activities in their wrap-ups.

OSTP’s memo, by OSTP Director and presidential science adviser John Holdren and U.S. Chief Technology Officer (CTO) Megan Smith, lists “fostering a burgeoning private space sector and increased capabilities for our journey to Mars” tenth on the list of top 10 Obama Administration accomplishments in science and technology. (The CTO is part of OSTP.)  Later it identifies achievements in 5 categories of “frontiers” building on the White House Frontiers Conference held in October 2016.  One is “Interplanetary Frontiers.”

In sum, OSTP heralds the following space-related Obama Administration achievements:

  • extending the International Space Space (ISS) to 2024, commercial cargo, and progress on commercial crew;
  • supporting the Journey to Mars and a robust U.S. commercial space market, including continued development of advanced space technology for life support and solar electric propulsion, collaboration with industry to develop deep space habitats, and initiating efforts to allow the private sector to add their own modules to ISS;
  • advancing space science through NASA, NSF and the Department of Energy (DOE), with shout-outs to the Kepler Space Observatory, the Curiosity Mars rover, the New Horizons mission to Pluto, Juno, and the James Webb Space Telescope (plus NSF’s ground-based Atacama Large Millimeter Array and the NSF/DOE Large Synoptic Survey Telescope);
  • enhancing prediction of and preparedness for space hazards, notably Near Earth Objects (NEOs) and space weather; and
  • harnessing the small satellite revolution.

The OSTP memo then lists 10 actions needed for the future to address science and technology challenges.  None are specific to space, but more general.  First and foremost is investment in fundamental research.  STEM education, supporting innovative entrepreneurs, and continuing international cooperation and engagement are also on the list.

The exit memo from Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter also touches on space activities. One paragraph restates DOD’s warning that space is no longer a sanctuary and “we must be prepared for the possibility of a conflict that extends into space.” It states that the Obama Administration has spent $22 billion “to defend and improve the resiliency of our assets in space and put potential adversary space systems at risk, helping ensure the advantages of space are available for U.S. forces in the future.”  The memo implores the incoming Administration to ensure that reconnaissance, GPS, and secure communications can be provided and “ensure and defend these capabilities against aggressive and comprehensive space programs of others.”

The DOD memo also stresses the need to “ensure America pioneers and dominates the technological frontiers related to military superiority” noting that it is no longer just a matter of bigger or better weapons, but the “additional variable of speed” — who can “out-innovate faster than everyone else.”

Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker noted the recent launch of the first next-generation geostationary weather satellite, GOES-R/GOES-16 and the upcoming launch of the first next-generation polar orbiting weather satellite, JPSS-1, in her exit memo.  She said that the launch of JPSS-1 must be a priority to ensure there will be no gaps in satellite coverage.  (That launch recently slipped from March 2017 to the fourth quarter of FY2017.)

Interestingly, Pritzker concluded by saying she is convinced taxpayers would be better served by a “streamlined ‘Department of Business,’ similar to the President’s 2012 government reorganization proposal.”  Under that proposal, NOAA would have moved from the Department of Commerce to the Department of the Interior.

All of the exit memos are accessible from the White House website, which will change on January 20 when Donald Trump assumes office, of course, so where these will be available electronically thereafter is unknown.

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