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Robert Lightfoot
Acting NASA Administrator Robert Lightfoot is dwarfed by a chart showing Earth, the moon and Mars at the Space Symposium in Colorado Springs. “I realize it’s not to scale,” Lightfoot said. “It is to scale, though, in priority.” (GeekWire Photo / Alan Boyle)

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — NASA should rethink its approach to the risks of spaceflight as it prepares for a new wave of exploration, the space agency’s outgoing chief says.

“Protecting against risk and being safe are not the same thing,” Acting NASA Administrator Robert Lightfoot told a standing-room crowd here today at the 34th Space Symposium. “Risk is just simply a calculation of likelihood and consequence.”

Lightfoot said he’s worried that excessive risk aversion could hobble NASA as it prepares to build an outpost in lunar orbit and blaze a trail to Mars.

“Would we have ever launched Apollo in the environment we’re in today?” he said. “Would Buzz and Neil have been able to go to the moon in the risk posture we live in today? Would we have launched the first shuttle with a crew?”

Back in those days, Lightfoot said, mission managers were careful about selecting which risks to work on and which risks to accept.

“We need to require what I call an ‘Eyes Wide Open’ strategy,” he said. Such a strategy calls for leaders to have a full understanding of the risks and make the right decisions about them, while keeping the bigger picture in mind.

“We’ve got to make sure that that overarching benefit is there, and I think that American leadership in space is that benefit,” Lightfoot said.

Lightfoot framed his comments as a valediction of sorts. The 55-year-old civil servant has worked in various capacities at NASA for 29 years. He was the agency’s associate administrator until Jan. 20, 2017, when he became acting administrator in accordance with the procedure for the White House transition.

Last month, Lightfoot announced that he’d be retiring on April 30. President Donald Trump picked Rep. Jim Bridenstine, R-Okla., as his choice for NASA’s top official months ago — but that nomination has been bottled up in the Senate, in part due to concerns about having a politician fill what’s traditionally a nonpartisan post.

There’s some indication that Bridenstine’s nomination will finally come up for a Senate vote this week. Lightfoot’s musings could thus be seen as parting advice for Bridenstine as well as the wider space community.

“We must move from risk management to risk leadership,” Lightfoot said. “From a risk management perspective, the safest place to be is on the ground. From a risk leadership perspective, I believe that’s the worst place this nation can be.”

During his talk, Lightfoot touched on the main points of NASA’s current space exploration strategy:

  • He’s fully supportive of the Trump administration’s plan to phase out direct government support of the International Space Station by 2025. Lightfoot noted that the proposed budget for fiscal 2019 includes $150 million for stimulating commercial activity in low Earth orbit, either on the space station or on new orbital platforms.
  • NASA’s next spaceflight platform, known as the Lunar Orbital Platform – Gateway, should start taking shape around 2022 with the launch of a power and propulsion element. NASA’s NextSTEP program should lead to the development of modules for that future space complex.
  • NASA will also support the development of a range of landers that could transfer cargo and eventually people between the moon-orbiting complex and the lunar surface.
  • The activities in lunar orbit will help NASA fine-tune life support systems and other components that will be required for years-long missions to Mars and its moons in the 2030s.

Lightfoot said Vice President Mike Pence, who chairs the recently revived National Space Council and addressed the Space Symposium on Monday, is closely following NASA’s exploration plans.

“It was pretty awesome to have him engaged on a personal level,” Lightfoot said. “He’s very interested in what we’re doing, very committed to what we’re doing.”

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