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Lightfoot Reports on Current, Future NASA Initiatives
Robert Lightfoot Briefing

Image above:NASA Associate Administrator Robert Lightfoot discusses current and future initiatives for the agency and Kennedy Space Center, including an astronaut mission to study an asteroid, during an all-hands meeting with employees in Kennedy's Training Auditorium. Photo credit: NASA/Jim Grossmann
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NASA Associate Administrator Robert Lightfoot joined Kennedy Space Center Director Bob Cabana in reporting on the space agency's current and future initiatives during an employee briefing on June 4. The meeting was part of a tour of facilities at the Florida spaceport where Lightfoot saw many of the activities taking place to meet NASA goals.

"I had a great visit this morning," Lightfoot said. "We got to look around the Vehicle Assembly Building and the (launch) pad to see the transformation that is ongoing."

Kennedy continues to make strides in transitioning from a historically government-only launch facility to an affordable, sustainable center for both government and commercial customers.

"We've asked you to do so much to turn this into a multiuser spaceport," said Lightfoot. "It's really encouraging to see the transformation that Kennedy is going through under Bob's leadership."

In his introduction, Cabana explained that as associate administrator, Lightfoot serves in a role similar to a corporate chief operating officer. Named to his current position in August 2009, Lightfoot previously was director of NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., after serving as director of the Propulsion Test Directorate at the agency's Stennis Space Center in Mississippi.

President Barack Obama’s Fiscal Year 2014 budget request for NASA provides funding for an initiative to robotically capture an asteroid and redirect it closer to the Earth-moon system. Astronauts then would launch an Orion multi-purpose crew vehicle (MPCV) aboard a Space Launch System (SLS) rocket to collect samples and explore the relocated asteroid.

"In 2010, when the president said we were going to an asteroid, that was no easy feat," Lightfoot said. "When you look at the moon and Mars, they're actually closer to Earth so we can track them and we know when to launch. Asteroids are a little different. They come and go and they are sometimes hard to track. Even harder would be to take humans to an asteroid which would require a minimum of 180 days. You've got to have life support, you've got to have radiation protection."

Lightfoot explained that the question then became, "what if we could bring the asteroid to us?"

"We will look for a seven-to 10-meter, 500-ton asteroid and bring it into a stable orbit around the moon," he said. "This approach takes advantage of our SLS and MPCV that will have the capability to fly around the moon as early as 2021. As a result, we start developing some of the techniques we're going to need to go to Mars."

In discussing the 2014 budget proposal for NASA, Lightfoot explained that NASA's goals support what he described as "four pillars.”

"We are working to understand and protect the Earth, conduct valuable research in space, extend our human reach to deep space, and explore our solar system and learn what's around us," he said.

Understanding and protecting the Earth includes Earth science activities and aeronautics research. Lightfoot noted that hurricane season has just begun and the nation's central plains have been devastated by recent tornadoes.

"We have many types of Earth- and weather-monitoring satellite systems," he said. "They ensure we understand what is happening and hopefully put some models in place to help us do a better job forecasting."

The focal point for conducting valuable research in space is the International Space Station (ISS).

"We're going to be using ISS for a long time," Lightfoot said. "It's also going to be our lynchpin for utilization of human spaceflight activities."

Lightfoot added that the space station effort also includes the Commercial Crew Program.

"This will give us the opportunity to again fly humans from American soil," he said. "This is also a big cultural shift."

In the past, NASA owned the vehicles that took its astronauts to space. Under the Commercial Crew Program, aerospace industry partners are developing space transportation systems that can safely launch astronauts to the space station and other low-Earth orbit destinations.

To facilitate human exploration beyond Earth, NASA's Space Launch System, a heavy-lift launch vehicle, will boost the Orion and is designed to be flexible for launching spacecraft for crew and cargo missions. All the Orion subsystems and components manufactured around the country are coming together in Kennedy's Operations and Checkout (O&C) Building.

"I just got back from visiting the O&C," Lightfoot said. "I saw Orion where structural testing is taking place. It's pretty neat to see the actual spacecraft there instead of a PowerPoint chart."

Lightfoot explained that among NASA's priority programs to explore our solar system and beyond is the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST). The large, infrared-optimized space telescope will be a successor to the Hubble Space Telescope and is projected to launch in five years.

"JWST is the flagship in that arena," he said. "They're making great progress toward that 2018 launch date."

Lightfoot had high praise for the team at Kennedy.

"It's encouraging to see the work that is getting done,” he said. “You should be proud."

Bob Granath
NASA's John F. Kennedy Space Center